--3. caramel macchiato--
Dan says, “Caramel macchiato?” questioningly, as if Phil won’t know what that is. He doesn’t say please and his hand remains stretched out, crumpled note caught in his fingers.
Phil, looking at the furrow between Dan’s eyebrows, thinks that it’s not so much that this Dan doesn’t have dimples but rather that this Dan has never smiled enough for them to form. He says, “Okay,” and pours the vanilla syrup, steams the milk, adds the espresso shots, reaches over to finally take the money from Dan’s hand and replaces it with a takeout cup.
Dan doesn’t say thank you. In fact, they barely make eye contact. He juggles the cup and the papers, and says, “How do you know my name?”
Phil says, “Sorry?”
Dan holds the cup aloft.
The cup, Phil realises has DAN written on it, in huge block capitals. A huge oversight on his part. He says, “Oh, I-”
Dan says, “Do we know each other from somewhere?” He’s frowning at Phil, like he has no idea how that could possibly be the case. “Because I don’t remember-”
Phil says, “Lucky guess?” and shrugs.
Dan stares at him, raises his eyebrows. “Lucky guess?”
“You look like a Dan,” Phil says, trying desperately to recover. “That’s why- I just thought that- we do a thing where we guess names and I-”
Dan doesn’t look convinced. “Have we met before?”
“In a past life maybe,” Phil replies, weakly.
In dreams Dan would probably have laughed at that. This one, lacking dimples and crinkles around his eyes and curls in his hair, does not. He gives Phil a look of you’re so weird that lacks any of the fondness Phil is used to seeing caught in that expression, and leaves.
In the ten minutes following Dan’s departure Phil both burns his hand on the espresso machine (“why did you lean against it?” says PJ, mystified. “You know it’s hot.”) and knocks over some cups, smashing perfect china segments across the till. He has to go to the staff room and hold his palm in a bowl of cold water, while also trying to lie down on the (very uncomfortable) sofa.
“Go to sleep,” he tells himself, sternly. “This is the wrong one. Go to sleep.”
Chris, from the stockroom, shouts, “Sorry?”
“Nothing!” Phil shouts back. His voice is wavery, wrapped around a sigh. “I was talking to myself.”
Chris doesn’t reply and Phil doesn’t go to sleep. But then ordering himself to sleep doesn’t work, has never worked, and no version of Dan so far has ever looked at him with such complete aloofness. This is, almost certainly, the wrong one, can’t possibly be the right one, if it is the right one then Phil may as well just stop all of this now.
He goes back to the counter and PJ, gratefully, says, “I thought you’d passed out in there again.”
Phil says, “No, not this time.”
--1. absent treatment--
Phil says, “I’m breathing,” but they’re shallow breaths, the sounds you make after crying. He can smell the bitterness of coffee caught in his hair.
PJ raises an eyebrow. “Dreams again?”
“Dreams again,” Phil agrees. Dreams all the time, dreams constantly.
“You going tell me what they’re about any time soon?”
Phil says, “No,” which he immediately regrets because he and PJ tell each other everything. PJ frowns. “I’m sorry. It’s just- they’re confusing. I find them hard to explain.”
PJ opens the chest of drawers between their two beds, shuffles around and hands Phil a battered green notebook.
“I can’t write this one down,” Phil tells him. “It was the worst one.”
“A nightmare then?”
“No, they’re never nightmares.”
PJ puts the notebook back. He doesn’t look inside, and promised that he never would (not that anything inside it would make any sense to anyone other than Phil. And it barely makes sense to him). “Are you going to be able to come to work? I don’t mind if you’re not.”
PJ has been saying that a lot, of late, as Phil sleepwalks his way through most of his awake moments. He clasps Phil’s shoulder and repeats it. Phil says, “No, no, I can,” even though all he wants to do is go back to sleep. To somewhere different.
They catch a pirate bus to Piccadilly (Phil finds them terrifying, PJ refuses to pay actual registered bus prices) and walk the rest of the way to their office. Phil can feel the heavy smog catching in his hair, as heavy as a pair of hands on his shoulders. He drudges through it like he’s walking through quicksand. They stop so PJ can buy a newspaper and Phil almost topples over his own toes.
PJ looks at him, concerned. “Do you need to-”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You can go back to our rooms and get some sleep. I can take care of things, we’ haven’t got many appointments today and they’ll all be easy.”
None of their jobs have been easy, of late. Phil tries to convey this thought to PJ, who sighs and says, “Did the dreams start after that house?”
Phil says, “They don’t feel like dreams.”
“But did they?”
Phil doesn’t want to talk about the house. He pulls down at his sleeves and says, “There was nothing wrong with the house,” which is a lie. There was everything wrong with the house. He and PJ should have known that from the moment they stepped through the door but it’s too easy, and too pointless, to think about that now.
Their offices are just opposite the British Library, in a dark little building that Phil always feels the need to whisper in. It’s an assortment of paired rooms, all with signs advertising completely different things. He and PJ had argued over their sign for a while before “Lester & Liguori ~ Spiritual Investigators” finally made its appearance. The sign constantly falls off its hook (which Phil had not done a great job with) and is already resting, face down, in front of their glass front door.
Phil doesn’t quite remember whose idea it was, but it was probably PJ’s. He was good at picking jobs that meant they could go along with the trends; they’d done vaudeville, black market alcohol trading, and a very brief time as an usher in the Royal Opera House. They’d just got the sack from the last one when PJ said, “what about this spiritualism thing that everyone’s into? We could do that. Easy. It’ll just being telling old ladies that their husbands miss them and all that jazz.”
(It wasn’t just telling old ladies that their husbands miss them. But PJ couldn’t have known that then.)
PJ sticks the sign back to the door and says, “I meant it when I said you could go home.”
“And do what?” Phil says. “Sleep? I never sleep anymore.”
“You sleep all the time. You sleep for ten hours, without moving. And yet you wake up tired, like you’ve been running around all night.” PJ unlocks the door, steps aside to let Phil in before him, then immediately steps back into Phil’s space. “I’m sorry. That this job isn’t as straightforward as I said it was going to be.”
“Nothing ever is.” PJ’s side of the office is neatly arranged, all his papers in tidy piles, probably in alphabetical order. There’s a yellowing folder in the middle of his desk that both he and Phil ignore. Phil’s side of the office is a mess of precious stones and pieces of shells and coloured glass that he’s collected, all tiny trinkets in blue (azure and cyan and turquoise and zaffre), scattered all over his desktop. Always blue. There are no papers. “And you couldn’t have known-”
PJ touches the yellow file with his finger. “We don’t have to look at this one yet.”
“It’s the same house?”
“It’s the same house,” PJ confirms. “Just a different case.”
Phil sits at his desk, dislodges a pile of teal shells that scatter and bounce over the floor. “I don’t want to go back there. Not if we can help it.”
“We can delay it, but not permanently.” PJ pushes the papers to one side. He watches Phil yawn. “I’ll make some coffee?”
They share a tiny waiting room area with the (rather unscrupulous looking) law firm across the corridor. Phil isn’t sure about their morals but they always have pots of coffee beans that they’re happy to share, and a little gas hob to heat the water on. The whole process takes about twenty minutes but it’s twenty minutes where Phil could shut his eyes for a second so he says, “Yes, please,” and watches PJ amble out of the door.
There’s no room for him to rest his forehead on the desk, not with his collection, not with how much it had grown over the past few weeks. “Damn,” PJ had said, around two weeks previously, looking at all the lined up pebbles. “What happened? Did someone tell you that they really like blue?” Phil had said, “Maybe,” because maybe someone had, just not in his awake world. It was almost subconscious, the way that he had suddenly started filling his coat pockets with shades of the sky.
He has one file in his desk, in a well-loved paper folder that he may have split a gin fizz over at some point, back in the days when this job was fun and he and PJ would discuss things in little hidden away pubs. He’s crossed over whatever the actual case was and written his own name underneath it. The only thing in the folder is a piece of notepaper with: Dan Howell written on it, the centre of a spider diagram that he hasn’t even finished, Dan Howell written in a bubble, five spindly lines shooting from it. It’s a statement instead of the question that it should be, the question that is: who is Dan Howell? The question with no real answer.
PJ returns, with two cups of not very good coffee, and also their first appointment of the day; an elderly woman in a smart two-piece suit and hat, dressed like she’s going to church. She blinks at Phil’s desk and says, “Goodness me.”
PJ clears his throat, and Phil, suddenly remembering his manners, jumps up and slides his chair into the centre of the room. He kneels to help her to sit down and the woman instantly turns her gaze on him, her apprehensive expression immediately softening, which is what usually happens. He has a kind face, he knows that, an unthreatening face. People seem to automatically know that he’s the type of person that will sit with them for hours while PJ taps on the walls of their homes, the type of person who will kneel right down on their level and take a gentle hold of their trembling hand.
Phil says, “What seems to be the problem?”
“Well,” she says. “It started about three months ago-”
Phil looks up at PJ who gives him a pointed look. Everything seems to be starting three months ago. “What started?”
“I haven’t been feeling right.”
PJ says, “What do you mean by right?” because he’s not the patient, with their clients, likes to get straight to the point.
“Well, like I belong here. Properly.”
“Belong here?” PJ asks. “In London?”
She doesn’t even look at PJ. She says, “I went to the theatre on Saturday and fell, bumped my head a little, I think, and for five minutes I wasn’t here, I was somewhere else. It was in the countryside and I was wearing a summer dress. It was yellow.”
“Dreams,” PJ says. “Just dreams.”
“They don’t feel like-”
“Dreams,” PJ says, firmly. “How can we help you today? We really don’t do much dream interpretation, but I can point you in the direction of-”
She says, “Oh, I have a ghost,” and primly crosses her legs at the ankles. “Everyone does these days, don’t they? Rattling the pipes and opening all the cupboard doors and such. It’s just getting a little tiresome.”
PJ, relieved (as relieved as anyone can be when faced with a ghost problem) says, “Right. We can help with that.”
Phil is still holding her hand. His thumb is right on the pulse of her papery thin wrist and her fingers are clinging to his like he’s trying to pull her aboard a life-raft. She repeats, “It only started three months ago.”
PJ takes all her details, starts a brand new file, with her title and surname in bold capitals on the cover. She blinks down at Ms. Clark and says, “Oh, you can call me Dodie. There’s no need to be so formal.”
When she leaves she produces a beautiful clear midnight blue marble and hands it to Phil. It’s so dark that it’s almost indigo, he can see himself in its surface. By the time he says, “Thank you,” she’s halfway down the corridor, he should really shout to her, but he doesn’t. He balances the marble in one of the shells.
“Three months ago,” PJ says, when he returns from walking Ms. Clark to a cab. “Everything is three months ago.”
“Did you hear what she said about-”
“The dreams,” PJ interrupts. “Always with the dreams.” He sits back at his desk. “We’ll go there tomorrow.”
They have two more appointments, an anxious looking man who wants them to perform an exorcism (“Not in our remit,” PJ says, startled), and a girl who cries from start to finish, even with Phil’s best attempts to try and soothe her. “It’s all wrong,” she keeps saying. “This whole place is wrong.” She doesn’t have a case, not one that they can fully understand, and PJ eventually has to politely ask her to leave. That’s been happening more often recently. It’s always PJ who has to lead them out; if it was down to Phil the office would be full of them. “It’s not an orphanage,” PJ always says. “What can we do?”
They eat dinner in a smoky little venue near their flat. PJ says, “We should get an early night. Or you should.”
Phil says, “What she said, about it not feeling like a dream-”
“I knew you were going to bring that up. Phil, they’re just dreams, what else are they going to be? You can’t honestly believe that there’s more to it than that.” PJ’s pint glass is dirty with speckles of dust. He tries to clean it with the sleeve of his shirt. “Is it the job? Are we spending too much time around this stuff?”
Phil shrugs, noncommittally.
“Because it’s not real. You know it’s not real. It’s rusting pipes and doors that the wind catches and locks that are loose and reflections and all that kind of thing. I do the investigating and you do the reassuring. You can’t do the reassuring with all of this hanging over you.”
“How did she know to bring that blue marble?”
PJ sighs, deeply. “People want there to be something. They always know there’s really nothing there.”
“Except that house.”
PJ drains the last of his drink. “Except that house.”
The rooms above theirs are having a party. Someone shouts down to PJ from an open window as Phil is fumbling for the keys. Their landlady is away for the week and everyone in the building has, really, gone a little crazy, like they’re school children and it’s the summer holidays.
The someone, who Phil now recognises as Chris, shouts, “Happy day ghosthunting?”
“Always!” PJ yells back. “Is this party invitation only or is anyone welcome?”
“I have a strict guest list,” Chris replies. “But you and Philip are on it, of course.”
Phil finally lets them into the hall and says, “I might just go to sleep.”
“Ah, come on,” PJ says, already at the bottom of the stairs, hanging off the banister like he’s in a musical. “It’ll do you good.”
Phil isn’t easily led by many people but he has always been easily led by PJ, who is the type of naturally charming person who could lead birds right out of trees, fish out of the ocean, that sort of thing. The sort of person who could lead Phil right into any number of unscrupulous jobs and rooms in boarding houses in bad neighbourhoods.
PJ says, “Phil. I’ll make you a really fruity drink. The kind that you like. Come on.”
“What happened to me getting an early night?”
PJ hangs his head. “You’re right.”
“Go without me,” Phil says. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t mind.”
PJ does so. Phil goes into their rooms and sits in their one chair (a soft deep blue armchair that PJ had acquired from somewhere, appearing in the doorway carrying one side of it, Chris carrying the other, saying, “look what I found. And it’s blue!”), fully intending to just rest his eyes. Just for a second. But it never is just a second.
--2. epistolary romance--
He goes onto his balcony. It’s tiny, and the railings touch his toes even when he stands with his back pressed to the door, but it’s outside. It’s fresh air. He stands and looks down on the city below, the gentle bustle. His neighbours’ balconies, either side, are only a few inches from his, separated only by their identical glass sides, but he never sees his neighbours, not on this floor, just hears the gentle murmurings of people above and below. Never on the same level.
Manchester is lonely but also somehow welcoming. Phil holds his hand out, right over the balcony edge, and opens his fingers to feel the wind. There’s a half drunk cup of coffee on the balcony to his left, precariously balanced right on the edge of the railing. The cup is in the shape of Hello Kitty, her tiny paw raised in a wave. To drink from it you presumably have to stick most of your face into her head. Phil smiles at it and leans over to take it off the railing and safely down onto the floor.
For some reason, he leaves a note, a post-it, I moved your mug. I didn’t want her to fall off the railing, stuck to Hello Kitty’s waist like a skirt. He has to add another one to say, yes, I know I just called your mug “her” sorry, that was weird :)
His noticeboard is full of post-its, all to himself. They all say variations on meerkats?, and London - 1920s (possibly). One just says University, but different. He adds another one, A ghost?, and sticks it up with the rest.
PJ phones. He says, “Hey, have you even started trying to edit this? It’s terrible.”
Phil hasn’t even opened his laptop yet. “I haven’t looked. I only just woke up.”
PJ says, “Again? It’s two in the afternoon, Phil. We have to get this trailer done by the end of the month. And, seriously, it’s terrible. Watch it.”
“You’re not exactly selling it to me very well.”
“Watch it,” PJ repeats. “And tell me what you think. It’s all like, trying really hard to be scary and ghostly, and failing. And, I don’t know, try and stay awake.”
Phil watches the trailer. It is, as PJ said, pretty awful. Phil likes to be encouraging to the smaller companies that come to the firm for editing advice but, it’s difficult, sometimes.
He goes back out onto the balcony. Hello Kitty is back on his side, wearing a new post-it skirt. It says thanks and that’s not weird she doesn’t deserve my neglect so you can keep her
The handwriting is terrible. Phil has to squint at it for a while, held up in front of his face, before he can actually make it out.
The neighbour to the left is playing the piano. Something sweet and light, like the music that plays when you visit a shop in Pokemon. It’s the first noise he’s ever heard from that apartment, the first time he’s ever seen the door even slightly ajar.
He writes play the piano more, sticks it to Hello Kitty’s china paw, and gently places her back over on the left side. She holds the post-it aloft, like a banner.
The piano pauses momentarily, just as Phil shuts his patio doors. The pause is long enough for, theoretically, someone to go out onto their balcony, pick up a mug and maybe write a note back. Phil resists all urges to go back out and look, and instead phones PJ.
He says, “You’re right, it’s terrible. No one believes in ghost stories anymore. How did it even end up with us?” Their firm specialises in animated features, the kind of candy coloured universes that Phil wants to live in, soundtracked by his neighbour’s piano.
“Someone asked for us personally,” PJ replies. “Or, asked for you personally, I should say. They were very insistent.”
Phil re-watches the trailer, with PJ’s voice clasped to his ear. The whole thing is shot in varying shades of yellow, making it difficult to work out what exactly is going on but, as far as he can see, there’s two guys trying to investigate a potential haunted house. One is very clumsy and bumps into things. There are lots of jump-cuts and sudden explosions of music that make it come across almost like a comedy. It’s impossible to work out the story.
“Asked for me personally,” Phil repeats. “For this.”
“I didn’t question it. She paid up-front. It’s probably a student film and we’re basically doing their degree work for them, like last time.”
It wasn’t just last time, it was every time. Phil found it impossible to say no to the endless stream of editing students who turned up at the offices, all at different points in the stress scale, all wanting “help” with a project. The help usually turned into Phil doing the work for them and receiving no credit but, that’s fine.
“It doesn’t feel like a student film,” Phil says.
PJ says, “Hey. I’m back.”
Phil, phone cradled to his ear, says, “Sorry?”
--1. absent treatment--
Phil says, “Manchester,” and, “I need my notebook.”
“It’s by the beds, I can go and get it?”
Phil finally blinks himself awake and realises that he’s fallen asleep in their armchair. His neck already aches. By the time PJ returns with the notebook he’s forgotten completely what he wanted to write. Something about a piano, someone playing the piano. He stares at the blank page and says, “No, it’s too late.”
“Should I have let you sleep? I just didn’t want to leave you in the chair.”
Phil tries to grasp at the last fragments of the dream; it’s like trying to catch dandelion seeds, dancing on the air just ahead of his fingertips. He says, “No, no. You should have woken me up.”
“It’s not late,” PJ says. “I could have stayed later, Chris wanted to start up the gramophone but I said you needed to sleep, so he promised to be quiet.” There’s a loud thud on the floor above. “But you know he struggles with that. Sometimes.”
Phil can only, weakly, write down piano. He doesn’t remember anything else beyond the need, the want, to cross the inches separating him and his neighbour, to hop right over the gap between their balconies. The dreams where feelings linger are the worst. The loss of something that you never quite found in the first place.
--5. the dream synopsis--
PJ repeats, “Again? Are you ill?”
Phil says, “No,” and then, “Honestly,” as PJ frowns at him. “Just tired. That’s all.”
“Am I interrupting your office hours?”
Technically the answer to this is yes, but Phil’s office hours are never really full. He both blames the sign and can’t bring himself to change it. At the start of term, as with every start of term, he had emailed every new starter, every student who so much as hesitated at his little stall at the fresher’s fair, confirming his office hours and saying come by for a chat, followed by the rocket ship, shooting star and sunglasses emojis.
He says, “I don’t have any appointments today.”
“I told you that the smilies were too much,” PJ sighs. “Maybe send another email. Without the rocket ship.”
“But the rocket ship’s the best part! It’s about them being able to achieve their dreams and-”
“Go into space?”
“Metaphorically,” Phil says. “Into space metaphorically.”
“Sure.” PJ doesn’t look convinced. “I’m getting coffee, do you want anything?”
Phil instantly says, “A caramel macchiato,” and has no idea why.
“Really? That’s a change from the usual.” PJ shrugs. “I’ll see you in a bit, send another email.”
By the time Phil opens his academic diary to the correct date page he’s forgotten completely what he’d dreamt about and can only, hopelessly, write down there was a party, which could mean anything. Another confusing note in an entire term of confusing notes. There was a party; I make never-ending cups of coffee and injure myself in many different ways. I burnt my hand and when I woke up my hand actually hurt; I think it’s the 1920s but I have a really modern fringe; PJ is there.
There’s a very gentle knock on his door. Phil looks up. Dan taps his fist right on Phil and says, “I need you to help with my career guidance needs.”
“You never need help with your career guidance needs,” Phil replies. “You never read anything that I give to you.”
“I read the one about effective time management,” Dan says. He still doesn’t come in from the door, staying exactly sixteen steps away.
“Has that helped with the procrastination?”
Dan says, “No,” and smiles, left dimple only.
Dan never needs help with his career guidance needs. He mostly wants to complain about how terrible trying to do a Law degree is and trying to think of believable excuses to drop out. He also tidies everything on Phil’s desk to perfect right angles and eats all of his sweets, while Phil gives him pamphlets that he, presumably, never reads. For all of that, he’s Phil’s most frequent attendee.
Dan has wavy brown hair, exclusively wears black, and has dimples so deep that someone could almost have drawn them into his cheeks. All of his smiles are surprised, like he can’t quite believe he’s doing it, and he pulls his sleeves right over his knuckles, so only his fingertips are visible. It sometimes hurts Phil to look at him; a hurt that is both good and bad, the gentle ache of something behind his ribs.
Phil closes the academic diary. The dreams started three months ago, which is about the time that Dan had responded to his email, with a rocket ship of his own. Which means it has been, most likely, two months and twenty eight days, since Dan had sulked into Phil’s office, a curious mix of soft and not-soft, and Phil had thought, Oh.
He thinks Oh now, as he often does when presented with Dan, within arms reach and also very far away.
“Then what’s the problem today?”
“I have a lecture that I don’t want to go to. It’s property law. That’s the worst. So, I thought I’d come over here instead. And see you.” Dan finally steps into the room, properly, sits on the chair in front of Phil’s desk. “I know you said that I shouldn’t use these meetings as an excuse to skip lectures-”
“And yet you still do,” Phil says, weakly.
“It makes me feel better,” Dan says. “To come here and see-”
“Pamphlets!” Phil exclaims, before Dan has to go and actually draw attention to the chemistry, the subtext, that sometimes feels so tangible in the air that Phil thinks he could touch it. “I have new pamphlets.”
Dan says, “Right,” and, “Okay,” politely takes the seven copies of “Your Career as a Dental Nurse!” that Phil places in his hands. “I just wanted to say-”
“You shouldn’t skip lectures to come and see me.”
“And I’ve been thinking of a way to say it, all the way here, and-”
“It’s important that you attend all of your lectures, it’s a very-”
“I can’t say it when you’re interrupting me.”
“I know,” Phil says, helplessly. “I know you can’t.”
Dan stops and huffs a laugh (either at himself or Phil, or both of them). Phil sometimes wants to laugh too, at this whole situation, so completely inevitable, from the moment that Dan had walked into his office, having replied to a rocket ship, wearing a shirt covered in cherry blossoms and looking like someone had dreamt him up, just for Phil.
“You shouldn’t skip your lectures to come and see me,” Phil repeats. “You shouldn’t skip anything to come and see me.”
Dan shrugs, earnest expression now covered with complete nonchalance. “Everything’s just so boring here.”
Phil thinks Apart from me? but settles on something safe, something appropriate for a careers advisor, and says, “They’re only boring if you let them be, Dan.”
Dan looks offended that Phil would say something so cheesy to him and also somehow resigned to this being how the conversation is going to go. “I know.”
Phil gives him more leaflets and studies on how to make the most of your university experience and talks, for ages it seems, about how it can feel confusing, overwhelming. How what you want can seem very far away sometimes but if you’re just patient and wait-
“Are we still just talking about uni?” Dan asks, an air of hesitance in his voice that he tries to cover up.
“Yes,” Phil says. But, also, no.
Dan leaves as PJ returns. He doesn’t like speaking to Phil when there are other people around, hates anything which affects it being just the two of them, as though Phil’s office is trapped in a snow globe (Phil at his desk, Dan on the little chair in front of him). PJ says, “Daniel.” Dan says nothing.
PJ hands Phil his caramel macchiato (why that? He’s never drunk one in his life before). “That’s still going on, huh?”
“Nothing is going on. I’m his careers counsellor. That’s all.”
PJ raises his eyebrows. “We can talk about this outside work, if you want.”
“No,” Phil says. He repeats it twice, just for emphasis (“no, no”), because talking about it somehow makes it real, to actually say words rather than feeling them in his heart. “He’s a student who needs a lot of career advice. That’s all.”
“You should be referring him to student advisory; he’s literally only been to three lectures this whole term. Almost like he’s coming here instead.”
Phil says, “PJ,” but it’s true. He should have referred Dan to student advisory weeks ago, as soon as the lecture skipping became obvious. He’d written the email a dozen times but he couldn’t do it, wasn’t ready to have Dan leave him.
“I’ll let you get on with your office hours.”
Phil shakes his head. “I only had one appointment.”
“I know you did, Phil. You always do.”
PJ leaves. Phil drinks his caramel macchiato and rearranges his (exclusively blue) stationary.
(Dan had replied to Phil’s email with the rocket ship emoji followed by you know, saying aim for the stars makes no sense. all the stars are dying. the glow is them burning up before they explode. it’s a bad metaphor. can we have a meeting on tuesday at 3? this is dan howell btw i’m doing law and i hate it. prepare to try and inspire me.
The emails had, over time, turned more into can i see you, what day are you free, any day is fine and Phil had to restrain himself from not just sending back a whole email chain of yes, yes, yes, yes).
--4. slow show--
Dan says, “Oh. I can come back. I just wanted to check how he was doing.”
Phil, suddenly awake, says, “I was going to bring him over later. You didn’t need to come all the way over here.”
Dan doesn’t say anything, he’s staring at Phil, with an odd, frowning expression. Phil realises that he’s just in his t-shirt (white with red polka dots), holding Thor like a baby swaddled in his hoodie. Phil says, “I know this isn’t exactly the right technique, and you’re probably going to say all sorts of vet things about how-”
“No.” Dan seems to come back to himself. “No, he’s probably more comfortable like that. He just might start thinking you’re his mum.”
Phil blinks down at Thor. “I hope not. I wouldn’t be very good at that. I’d leave him in Tesco, or an eagle would steal him or something.”
“Why would you take a meerkat to Tesco?”
“If I was his meerkat mother I’d take him everywhere with me. Look at how cute he is.” Phil holds up Thor, to prove his point. “You need to check him over again?”
Dan reaches over and cradles Thor’s sleeping face in his (frankly giant) palm. “He looks okay, actually. Better than yesterday. Is he still not eating?”
“He’ll eat if I’m there. And also he’s still following me around.”
“What was I just saying about him thinking you’re his mother?” Dan rubs his hand over Thor’s head, turning his fur in the wrong direction. The motion makes him bump his fingers against Phil’s chest. Dan clears his throat. “We said, before, about you getting too attached to them. This is going to be like Susan all over again.”
Dan ponders this. His hand is still very close to Phil’s heart (if he splayed his fingers, just a little, just the merest centimetre to the left-). “Susan 2.”
Phil says, “That’s uncalled for. You know we don’t speak of Susan 2 anymore.”
“I’m just saying. He’s not a pet.” Dan pulls his hand away. Phil resists the urge to lean after it. “You need to put him back with the others.”
“But he’s the smallest.”
“I’ll put him back with the others.” Phil looks down at Thor. “When he’s awake.”
Dan says, “It’s sweet how-” and abruptly stops.
“Nothing. If he’s still not eating tomorrow bring him over. Otherwise, he looks okay.”
Phil watches Dan leave, gets out of the chair and then stands in the enclosure office window tracking Dan’s hunched shoulders as he walks all the way back over to the vet’s hut.
Dan stops halfway, almost turns as if to walk back in the same direction that he came from, and then carries on. Thor snuffles almost like he’s laughing.
Phil says, “I know. It’s pathetic.”
Thor has a pen away from the others because (a) he’s the smallest and his brothers and sisters have taken to trampling all over him, and (b) he’s Phil’s favourite. Thor will only eat when it’s food fed to him by Phil, will only drink when it’s Phil holding the bottle, and has now, apparently, taken to only sleeping when he’s wrapped in one of Phil’s hoodies. When Phil puts him back in the pen he mewls, sadly.
“It’s okay. I’m right here,” Phil tells him. He reaches in and touches the pile of shiny items that Thor has, somehow, acquired from the office and the environment around his pen. Mostly little pieces of pebble and some glass. All of it is blue. “C’mon Thor. You need to fly the nest, you can’t stay with me all the time.”
Thor sighs, a sound that only gets louder as Phil leaves him to head back to the window. Dan is in the doorway of the vet’s office, like he’s still not sure if he’s going inside or not. Phil touches his hand to the glass. Thor squeaks for attention. Dan hunches forward and rests his forehead on the office door frame. Phil thinks come back.
--6. dan howell--
Phil says, “Come back.”
Dan blinks. “What? I’m right here.”
Phil, suddenly awake, says, “No, nothing,” just the vision of Dan walking away from him, in a white coat and sad tired lines, around his eyes. “Sorry I was asleep for so long.”
“That’s nothing to be sorry for. You can stay in bed all day if you want. I just need attention.”
His hair is curly, the sides are shaved, he’s wearing an oversized t-shirt with kittens on it. The kittens are dressed like astronauts. Phil loves him, is always amazed by the surge of love that he feels, every time he looks at Dan, like it could burst right out of him. Phil says, “Or, we could stay in bed all day. That’s a better plan.”
Dan smiles, lets himself be snagged by Phil’s grasping hands and pulled forward, right onto the covers that Phil is still trapped under. He says, “Wait,” to which Phil makes a frustrated noise, “No, it’s just. When I said there wasn’t anything urgent-”
Phil huffs and noses, very gently, at the hinge of Dan’s jaw.
Dan says, “Stop,” but doesn’t mean it.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil says, “Okay,” and pours the vanilla syrup, steams the milk, adds the-
“How did you know my name?”
Phil jumps, almost scalds himself. “What?”
“I don’t believe you when you said it was a lucky guess. Did we go to the same uni at least?”
Phil seizes the university mention. “Maybe. Did you go to Manchester?”
Dan says, “No,” and then, “Why?” because Phil’s face must have fallen, must have a look of absolute despair because Dan has always gone to Manchester, always. “Did you think that I had?”
“No,” Phil says, recovering himself. “No. I was just wondering if that could have been it.”
“Have we worked on a case together?”
Phil says, “A case?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Dan says. “Or, I mean, training to be. I’m doing my LPC.” His eyes continue searching Phil’s face. “Is that not it?”
“It was a guess,” Phil says. “Honestly. Just a really really lucky guess.”
This appears to be the wrong answer. Dan’s shoulders slump in defeat, his poker straight fringe falls in his eyes as he bows his head. Phil wonders why he’s so sad, why he looks so tired, and he touches his index finger lightly over Dan’s knuckles when he hands over the paper cup.
He’s written DAN on it again, without thinking. Dan, seeing it, raises his eyebrows.
“I thought about it-” Dan begins, and then falters, and stops. He rummages in his coat pocket and drops a fistful of shrapnel and one crumpled five pound note onto Phil’s counter. “Oh, sorry. I just- keep the change.”
The “change” is fifty pence. This is a ridiculously expensive coffee shop. Phil puts it in the charity tub in front of the till and scoops the remnants of Dan’s pocket into his hand. There’s tiny pieces of torn paper, receipts most likely, one or two pennies, and, in the centre, a rounded gemstone that’s the most perfect cornflower blue that Phil has ever seen. He puts that in his apron pocket.
--1. absent treatment--
PJ says, “wow, that’s a long note.”
They’re getting ready to go to Ms. Clark’s. Phil had tried every excuse he could possibly think of but none had worked. PJ, currently wrapping loops of heavy knitted scarf around his neck, had insisted that he needed him there, that he couldn’t do the job without Phil.
“You mean that you can’t speak to Ms. Clark without me.”
Phil takes his notebook on the bus, reads back through his pages of notes, the last three months of just wildly varying dreams. Four with Dan and one without. Up until recently the coffee shop too had been devoid of Dan, a steady stream of nights making drinks with names he didn’t know, recognised only by the smell. He sometimes woke up with the rich scent of coffee still in the air, the feel of Dan’s hand just lightly brushed with his fingertip. It always disappeared through the flutter of his eyelashes, like he’d never felt it at all.
PJs eyes are wide. “All of those pages are your dreams?”
“I have to keep track. The same person is always in them.”
PJ pauses. “Someone we know?”
“No. Someone I’ve never seen before.”
PJ waits a while, a long while, a while that lasts right until they’re in Pimlico, at a marble arched house opposite St. George’s Square, before he says, “But it’s the same person? Every time?”
“Always the same person.”
“Would you know them if you saw them here? In real life?”
Ms. Clark, obviously having been waiting for them, pushes her door open. She’s wearing a yellow dress and a necklace of real daisies (a perfectly connected chain that is long enough to be a scarf). Her house is cluttered and yellow, little pockets of sunshine everywhere. Phil feels like he and PJ have somehow brought the dust from outside with them and tries to brush it off his coat.
She makes them tea in dainty china cups and they sit in her honey coloured parlour in silence until PJ, politely, says, “So, the ghost?”
Ms. Clark jumps like she’d forgotten there even was such a thing. “Oh, yes! It seems to be in the pantry, that’s where I usually hear it.”
PJ gives Phil a look that says old pipes. It’s laced with disappointment. Phil raises his eyebrows apologetically.
“We’ll go down,” PJ says.
“Actually I thought that Mr. Lester could stay with me.” Ms. Clark reaches over and pats Phil on the knee. “I get nervous, and maybe I thought that-”
This is the usual request from clients so PJ says, “He’ll stay with you. Nothing to be nervous of,” and tilts his cap on the way out of the door.
When he’s gone Ms. Clark half launches herself at Phil, grabbing at his elbow, a sudden burst of movement that makes him jump. She says, “I lied. I just wanted to get you here.”
Phil says, “PJ and I? Is there something you want to-”
“No, you. Just you. I couldn’t think how else to do it.”
Phil says, “Me? What for?”
She says, “The dreams.”
Phil, delicately, like he’s threading each of her daisies into a chain by himself, says, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Sometimes,” Ms. Clark says, “I’m playing the guitar. I have flowers in my hair. I’m wearing a dress that’s too short and ankle socks, and I feel happy and sad all at the same time.”
Phil says, “I don’t-”
“There are tiny light bulbs, all on a piece of string, and I’ve hung them up on my bookcase. Everything is yellow, the same way that everything on your desk is blue.”
“I can’t help you with-”
“You can.” Ms. Clark looks desperate. “I know you can. I’ve seen you.”
Phil stops in the motion of stirring his tea. “You’ve seen me where?”
“There. Not in all of them but some of them. Because they’re different, aren’t they? Every night they’re different. I saw you. Your hair was redder. You probably didn’t realise it was me because I’m younger there. I think.” She looks, triumphantly, at where Phil has frozen in place, as if to say ha! Caught you!
Phil says, “They’re all different. But also the same, in some ways.”
“What do they mean, do you think?”
“Is anything similar, in yours? Are the same people in each one?”
Ms. Clark shakes her head. “That would be obvious then, wouldn’t it? If the same people were there, or the same person.”
“What would be obvious?” Phil asks because, to him, precisely nothing is obvious.
“Well, that would be what they mean, that would be the whole reason, wouldn’t it? That person.” She looks intrigued. “Is there a person in-”
“Sometimes,” Phil says, “I look forward to going to sleep just so I can see him.”
She looks surprised by the sudden burst of honesty and says, “Oh dear,” because what else is there to say?
PJ, always perfect timing, bursts back into the room with a, “faulty pipes!” in the same triumphant way that he always says it.
Ms. Clark pays them, actually pays them, for a five minute visit and a ghost that didn’t exist. She presses the notes in PJ’s hand but looks at Phil the whole time. “Maybe you could do a follow up,” she says. “Maybe you could come back, just to check.”
“I think,” PJ says, halfway down the cobbled garden path, “that she’s sweet on you.”
Phil says, “No,” but he’d nodded to Ms. Clark, yes, I will come back, we’ll work this out together.
They’re walking back. Phil feels light headed somehow, and tired, when PJ suddenly says, “You should take the appointment tomorrow. We’ve just got the one, I need to help Chris with something. You can be home before morning’s over, get some rest. We could go and get dinner now though, with some of the money.”
“We don’t have money to spend on dinner. We should save it.” Phil stuffs his hands in the pockets of his code. There’s a hole in one, and three coins in the other. He feels guilty for spending money that they didn’t earn.
PJ, who doesn’t feel guilty for anything really, says, “Please, it’s been so long,” and so they go.
His notebook is divided into five columns, as much as he can remember. I’m with Dan. I’m not with Dan. Dan is far away from me. I love him, but I shouldn’t. I love him, but I can’t. Dan Howell; an impossible boy turning up in all variations of impossible dreams. The whole reason.
Showing up everywhere except Phil’s actual real life and sometimes, all the time thinking I look forward to going to sleep just so I can see him even though that always comes before waking up without him.
--2. epistolary romance--
Hello Kitty, back on his side, holding down three pieces of note paper, says i’m terrible at the piano so no i had a terrible teacher and i can still hear her yelling at me sometimes about my technique but thanks i guess i’m pretty bad at taking compliments.
also your plants are dying.
look at my terrarium it’s thriving.
The terrarium is in the corner of the left balcony. The note didn’t lie. It has actual flowers and everything. Phil’s plants have names, their own pots, an entire watering routine and are sung to every night. They’re all wilting under his eyes.
Terrariums are cheating. And my plants aren’t dying, they’re just resting. For the moment. And, seriously, play the piano more.
He’s making cereal, absent mindedly, all the cupboards in the kitchen open and the milk almost overflowing the bowl, when he hears the left balcony door open and then (two minutes later) close. He has to force himself to wait an appropriate amount of time, like responding to a text message, time to close all the cupboard doors and eat soggy Cinnamon Crunch, before he goes back out.
they’ve been resting since i moved in and that was three months ago i think they’re dead m8. do you sing to them? i think i hear you singing to them sometimes if i’m not imagining it. i meant to say hi but i
The note stops there, with an abrupt line through whatever the next part of that sentence was. Underneath the crossing out is any piano requests if you’re so blown away by my playing?
Phil wants to write something along the lines of just take a compliment why are you being so sarcastic but he goes for:
Yes, I sing to them. They’re called Billy, Bobby, Brenda, Barry and Thor. There was a Belinda, she was a calathea, but she’s resting. Forever. And, just, anything. Play anything
(His mother had bought Belinda. Her optimism in his skills at looking after anything are greatly misplaced. Belinda had lasted a week, through numerous Google searches that only confirmed that calatheas are the most difficult houseplants to look after).
He meets PJ in town, they talk about the weird ghost story trailer (“All that yellow,” PJ says. “It’s just odd.”) and Phil thinks he should remember something, something, about a ghost story and yellow, endless rooms of custard yellow, but he can’t quite cling on to the thought.
There isn’t any note when he returns, full of pizza and half a bottle of red wine, but there is music in its place. Chopin, he thinks, a tune that he heard once in an anime; gentle and delicate, even if the mood is spolit somewhat by his neighbour stopping, audibly saying, “fuck no, that’s awful,” and then starting again.
Hello Kitty is still on the balcony, with no new note. Phil feels slightly disappointed by this. He picks her up to add a thank you and hears a rattle.
There’s a rounded gemstone instead. A bright sunny blue in a shade that Phil doesn’t have yet. He adds it to the pot that contains Brenda, puts the mug back on the other balcony, and goes back inside.
(He should remember something about blue, his mind supplies cornflower blue, a gem hidden in something ordinary. He writes it down, sticks it to his board).
The piano, in its jumpy, stop-start way continues, underlined by his neighbour’s voice, soft and loud at the same time, posh and only speaking to tell himself how terribly he’s playing. This, somehow, only endears him to Phil, who wants to go over there and tell him to stop being so hard on himself, that what you want can seem very far away sometimes but- he stops, has no idea where the final thought had come from.
--4. slow show--
“He still won’t eat if I’m not there.” Phil opens the case’s cage door and produces Thor, wrapped up in his blue blanket. “And I think he sort of cries when he can’t see me? Can meerkats cry? Because I think he does.”
Dan scuffs his knuckles across the top of Thor’s head, catches the tuft of fur there into a mohawk. “I suppose they can. If they’re really sad.”
“Don’t make me feel bad.” Phil looks around the vet’s office, everything in neat little pairs. “Is PJ not here today?”
“He’s got a family thing. He’s been away for a few days actually, didn’t you notice?”
The honest answer is: no. How could Phil notice the lack of anyone else when Dan is there. He says, “Oh. I just thought that he was always busy.”
“He’ll be back on the weekend. It’s our anniversary.”
Phil says, “Is it?” but he knows, he knows it is. Three months to the day that PJ had come into the enclosure, flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, to say Phil, you’ll never guess what happened last night as Phil thought no, no, no. It just didn’t seem fair, that PJ had been able to jump right into whatever dance Phil had been doing around Dan for the past two years. PJ had spun right into Dan’s orbit without so much as a hey, do you mind if I cut in?
“Yeah, three months.” Dan listens to Thor’s fluttery little heartbeat, touches his fingertips to each of his limbs and shines a torch into his eyes. “He’s fine. He really is.”
“I still think-”
“He’s just really attached to you. And I don’t have a cure for that.” It’s a light remark that isn’t said lightly. Dan instantly looks like he wants to take it back and also to say it again a hundred times.
“That sucks for Thor,” Phil says, softly.
“I suppose it does.”
--5. the dream synopsis--
“I’m really more of a careers counsellor” Phil says. She’s used up his entire box of tissues, ineffectively dabbing at the mascara streaks under her eyes. “I’m useless with all of this.”
She leaves scrunched up tissues on his desk and is his only appointment of the day. Dan had emailed in abrupt lower case, as always, to say that he was going to his lecture. For once. hello philip i’m taking your advice you’ll be pleased to know.
The email signature is soundtracked with a sigh breaking out of Phil’s lungs. Dan never uses his email signature, but there it is, heartbreaking in its formality: Daniel Howell, First Year Law Student.
Dan sends another email, two hours later, i didn’t go to the lecture i lied why wouldn’t you let me finish talking? i had something to tell you
Phil, helplessly, says I have hours tomorrow. Come then.
“Take him off your rota,” PJ says, seriously. “I mean it.”
Phil doesn’t take him off the rota.
--6. dan howell--
Dan points this out, but fondly, and says, “You’ll get used to it.”
Phil misses their old flat, a little, for all its ceiling cracks and glass kitchen door and multiple flights of stairs. “I guess. It still feels a bit….not homely.”
Dan blinks. “Of course it’s homely. I’m there. You’re there. It’s home.” He always gets soft and sentimental after a few wines. “It’s our home.”
Phil, head cloudy with fondness, almost walks straight into a lamp post.
Dan says, “Phil,” his hand still on Phil’s sleeve, staring at the lamp post like it had jumped into their path completely on purpose. “What would you do if I wasn’t around?”
Phil says, “I don’t know, I really don’t know,” with much more urgency than he’d meant to.
--4. slow show--
(There had been an almost something once. Maybe there was an almost something now. Phil is terrible at picking up signals unless they are hugely signposted and obvious but even he had thought, at one point, that there had been a hint of maybe in Dan’s eyes. Maybe yes, maybe if Phil had actually got up the nerve to tell him, maybe if he hadn’t gone home early on that Christmas party, maybe if, yesterday, he had taken Dan’s hand and pressed it to his chest. Maybe).
When they had met for the first time, Phil was stacking multi-coloured cups for some baby otters and almost toppling right into their pool. Dan had said, “Oh”, like they’d seen each other before, somewhere. “Oh”. Later he’d added, “Have we met before?” and Phil said, “No, I would have remembered.” Dan had lit up with something Phil now realises was hope but Phil had seen it too late, had only recognised it in the millisecond after PJ’s love-drunk, “Hey, so me and Dan-”
That could have been when the dreams started.
(PJ didn’t miss signals, PJ cast signals. PJ is the type of naturally charming person who could lead birds right out of trees and fish out of the ocean. Could lead cute brown eyed vets right out of Phil’s gaze. Maybe).
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil almost writes back well of course you are and then wonders why that name means something. He flicks the post-it up through his fingers and frowns.
--1. absent treatment--
The appointment, neatly written in PJ’s perfect script, says Should arrive around ten. Not very forthcoming with information when he came in. Think it’s probably another journalist but shouldn’t take long. Just sent him off and write it up..
He says dreams, that’s all. Bet he’s heard about it from someone else and he’s trying to get a story.
Phil pulls his chair to the middle of the room in readiness and gets two cups of horribly gritty coffee ready, the granules not quite dissolving. He leaves the better cup for his client and looks back at PJ’s note.
The name, jotted just below it, is Daniel Howell.
Phil feels it, each letter, like a tap-tap over his ribs, just as there’s an insistent knock on the door, then the rustle of someone trying to hang the sign back up. There’s a pause, Phil tries to remember to breathe. There’s another knock.
Phil, finally, with the whispers of three months of dreams, says, “Come in.”
And Dan does.
--1. absent treatment--
Dan gives the mountain range of (indigo, cobalt and sapphire) blue on Phil’s desk a startled look and says, “Are you Liguori?”
“No,” Phil manages. He sounds out of breath. “I’m Lester.”
“I was expecting to see Liguori.” Dan pushes one of the marbles with his fingertip.
“Well, you’ve got me.”
Dan finally looks up at him. “I’m Daniel Howell.”
“I know.” Dan frowns. Phil says, “You’re in the book. Our appointment book. My partner, PJ, he’s Liguori, he wrote your name there.”
“I expect he would, in an appointment book.” Dan, suddenly, smiles. Both his dimples are there. Phil feels like his hand, still wrapped around the knot of his tie, should actually be wrapped around the knot of his heart. “Your sign’s fallen off the door, by the way.”
“It always does. Please sit down.” Dan awkwardly folds himself into the little chair as Phil hands him the cup of terrible coffee. He says, words tumbling out of his mouth, “Sorry there’s no caramel.”
Dan, confused, says, “Why would you put caramel in coffee?”
Because you like it, Phil thinks. It’s your favourite. Somewhere. If Dan was a normal client he’d be doing his usual, kneeling right down beside him and saying what seems to be the problem low and reassuring, patting his hand casually on his shoulder. But he can’t bring himself to go anywhere near Dan, doesn’t trust himself to not do something stupid, like reach out and touch Dan’s face, the crescent moon dimple in his right cheek, move up into the waves of his hair. He wants to do all of those things. He wants to-
Dan sips his coffee, wrinkles his nose and then puts the cup into the mess of Phil’s desk. “Do you need to ask me anything?”
“Oh,” Phil says. “I- What seems to be the problem? PJ wrote down that it was dreams. Or that you- something like-” He holds up the appointment book, at a loss of what to do with his hands.
Dan looks at the note. “He also said I’m probably a journalist.”
“Oh. I’d forgotten about that.” Phil tries to put the book back and succeeds only in releasing twenty sheets of loose paper that float gently on the breeze before scattering at Dan’s feet. “I’m sorry, I’m just-”
Dan catches one or two pages that land near his ankles. “Are you alright? I could come back.”
“No!” Phil exclaims. If Dan leaves he may not come back. He could walk right out of the door he might disappear forever. Phil still isn’t entirely sure that he’s actually real, that he isn’t going to separate into tiny flecks of dust if Phil looks at him for too long. “I’m sorry. It’s- I’m not sleeping very well. And I’m clumsy most of the time, but when I’m tired, it’s just worse, I suppose.”
“I understand. That’s why I’m here in the first place.”
“You’re clumsy most of the time?”
Dan smiles again. “No, the not sleeping. The dreams. The note’s correct about that.” He pauses. “It’s also correct that I’m a journalist.”
Phil says, “Oh,” weakly. PJ won’t be happy with that. They haven’t had great experiences with journalists; PJ can usually spot them a mile off, huge elaborate stories that involve them both having to go to empty houses that said journalist insists on tagging along for and innocently making them answer lots of questions that then appear in The Times two weeks later in articles about how immoral their business is and how they’re taking advantage of people's’ loneliness. Phil (a lonely person himself) always got a little upset by the articles, while PJ would just get angry and pen outraged letters “to the editor” until everything calmed down.
“Is that a problem?” Dan says, pulling at his sleeves. “I’m not writing a story, I promise. I don’t even get to write stories, I do the complete opposite. I write about weddings. So, unless you’re an heiress wearing several layers of antique lace and tulle I promise you’re not going in the paper. But I understand if-”
Phil takes a second to take in Dan, head to toe in black, and says “You write about weddings?”
“Yes. It’s awful.”
Phil says, “How so?”
“Because it’s going to lot of ceremonies and events where I have to speak to people and tell everyone how lovely they look and make small talk. I’m not very good at that.” Dan shrugs and then says, “Oh, hello there.”
Phil, without meaning to, has both knelt down and put one hand on the back of the chair. His whole left arm is pressed along Dan’s shoulder, his right hand is dangerously close to Dan’s knee. Dan, blinking at him, doesn’t look exactly unhappy about this, he’s smiling, just the left side of his mouth (oh, hello there). Phil rocks back on his heels to create some space, folding his arms safely out of the way, and says, “I don’t mind that you’re a journalist. Just don’t tell PJ. He’s not a huge fan.”
Dan flicks his eyes down to the space on his coat that Phil had, two seconds earlier, been touching, and says, “I won’t. I’ll say I’m a pianist instead. Always wanted to do that anyway.”
Of course you did, Phil thinks. He says, “So, the dreams.”
“Right. Yes. They started about three months ago. I know that exactly because I moved rooms. I found some really cheap in Kensington and the last person moved out really quickly, and it’s really only me and my landlord in the house, and then-”
“Where in Kensington?” Phil interrupts.
“Zils Street. Do you know it?”
Phil knows it. Zils Street is, right at this moment, written neatly in a yellow file on PJ’s desk. We don’t have to look at this one yet. “The person who moved out, do you know why? Did anything happen?”
“Never asked. I moved in about two days after they left. Should you be writing this down?”
Phil should be writing it down. But writing means looking away from Dan for a second, and he’s pretty sure that he couldn’t do that if he tried. “I’ll remember. What are your dreams like?”
“Strange,” Dan says. “They don’t really feel like dreams at all. I never remember them afterwards but I always wake up tired and like I’m missing something, but I don’t know what. It’s like I wish that I was still there. But they’re exhausting, I feel like I’ve been awake all night.”
The correct thing to say here is we don’t do dream interpretation. They have a friend who does, PJ keeps her business cards in his top drawer. Phil should be saying here you go, her name’s Louise and she can help and sending Dan on his way. But he doesn’t.
“I know that you mostly do ghosts and such, but I thought-”
“Is anyone in the dreams with you?”
Dan shakes his head. “Not that I know of. But I never remember.”
Phil swallows down the sudden hit of disappointment. “You should keep a diary. A dream diary, write in it as soon as you wake up.”
“I can do that.”
“It’ll help you keep everything together in your mind. And then we can look at it.”
Dan looks surprised. “So, you’ll help? I mean, it’s literally just that, no ghosts or seances. I felt- I don’t know, strange about coming here. It doesn’t sound like much when you say it aloud, does it? But it’s just been-”
“Confusing?” Phil supplies. “Tiring?”
He is suddenly very close to Dan again, without meaning to be. He can see the wear and tear in the cheap wool material of Dan’s coat, the freckles under his eyes. Patch of red just on his cheekbone. Dan says, “No, they don’t make me feel like that. I mostly just feel sad.”
“I wake up wishing I was still there. Wherever there is.” Dan looks into Phil’s eyes like he’s trying to separate the colours. “Should I see you again?”
Phil says, “Yes,” instantly.
Dan huffs a laugh. The red on his cheeks grows and spreads. “I meant, when I start keeping the diary. Should I see you again.”
“Right. Yes, you should. We should. In a week, maybe?
“I’m at a wedding then. But you could meet me?” Dan is whispering. Phil wonders why but it must be because, somehow, he’s knelt at Dan’s feet, surrounded by the still scattered pieces of paper. Dan is having to hunch down to speak, curving his shoulders and back right over Phil. “I’ll write down the name of the church and the time. I’ll meet you after the ceremony, but before the reception. They do the photographs then and it takes forever.”
“I’ll be there,” Phil says. “Whatever time you want, I’ll be there.” He stands up, very reluctantly. Dan sighs and flexes his fingers where they’re clasping his kneecaps. “I’ll wait for you.”
He gives Dan one of his notebooks, a leather bound peacock blue that PJ had got him. Dan says, “I’m a journalist, I have plenty of notebooks,” but takes it anyway. He leans past Phil to write down the date, time and location of the wedding (in doing so his coat sleeve brushes Phil’s thumb. He resists the urge to cling on). “Do I need anything else?”
“No,” Phil says. “Just keep the notes. We can look at them next week.” To see if I’m in them, he thinks. To see if they’re about me. If you wish that you were still there because of me.
Dan holds the notebook in one hand and holds his other out to Phil. “Thank you.”
Phil clasps his hand and, for a second, forgets what they’re doing, until Dan gently shakes up and down. “It was nice to meet you, Daniel.”
Dan says, “No, it’s Dan, please. Only my parents call me Daniel.”
The handshake stops. Phil doesn’t let go. They stand with their interlocked hands held between them. Phil says, “It was nice to meet you, Dan.”
“You too, Phil.”
When he leaves Phil has to grab at the corners of his desk, disrupting a pyramid of marbles, and wait for his heartbeat to return to normal. He holds Dan’s note up to his face. The handwriting is terrible, but somehow Phil knew that it would be. He wonders if this is a dream, in itself, that Dan (with his curls and his black coat and his dimples) is just a figment of his imagination.
He pinches his wrist to be sure. It hurts. It’s real. Dan’s real. Phil had felt it, felt him, the shiver under the fabric of his coat, held static under Phil’s finger. Dan is real. They’d spoken. He’d said you too, Phil as he was leaving, casually, like they were obviously going to see each other again.
It’s five minutes later, while Phil’s pouring terrible non-caramel coffee down the sink, that he realises that he’d never actually told Dan his name.
--6. dan howell--
Phil wakes up turned away from Dan but with Dan’s hand crushed to his chest. He blinks down. Dan waves his fingers sadly. Phil says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise I was doing it.”
“And yet still not letting go,” Dan points out, but gently. Phil releases his grips, presses Dan’s bruised fingers to his mouth, one by one. Dan taps his other hand on Phil’s hip. “Did you have a dream that I was being kidnapped or something?”
“No,” Phil says. “Why would you think that?” He scrambles for his phone, to try and make notes before the whole thing slips away. He can feel it fading already. Dan in a black suit, the red patch on Dan’s cheek, Kensington.
“Because you started mumbling and grabbed my hand like I was about to run far away from you.” Dan frowns. “And also, you’ve been having a lot of weird dreams lately.”
(There had been an incident, a few nights back, when Phil had woken up and, very seriously, told Dan, “Thor can’t sleep by himself, I have to be there,” and Dan had laughed so hard that they probably annoyed the one remaining neighbour who was still speaking to them after the pigeon feeding fiasco. Dan still brought it up sometimes.
They didn’t bring up the one a few nights before that when Phil had startled Dan awake by plucking at his t-shirt collar and saying, “Your dimples, you didn’t have your dimples,” and Dan, ridiculously but at a loss of what else to do, had pushed his fingers into the crevices of his own cheeks and said, “They’re right here”).
Phil can’t get to his phone. Daninablacksuit floats away on the breeze. “I’m not. That was just a few times.”
“They’re not nice dreams though, are they?”
Phil, somewhat reluctantly, says, “No. I don’t think so. They don’t feel like they are.”
“Am I in them?”
“Would it be a dream without you in it?”
Dan laughs (the one that’s just one loud burst of delighted ha!) and says, “Shut up” but he ducks his chin into his free hand so Phil knows that he secretly likes it. For all he pretends that his heart and soul are dark voids of blackness Dan really loves daily, hourly, reminders that Phil loves him. Is head over heels in love with him.
Phil hopes that it’s diffused the situation, at least a little, but Dan waits until they’re out of bed, sat at their new breakfast bar with their legs tangled together (they shouldn’t sit like this, Phil’s balance is poor at the best of times, but Dan pouts if they don’t) before he says, “So, about the dreams-”
“Dreams,” Phil says. “Just dreams.”
“I don’t like being in them if they’re bad dreams.”
“They’re not always bad. And it’s not a big deal.”
Dan sighs right into his cereal. “Just, wake me up. And if you need to sleep holding my hand you can but just, like, not cutting off circulation.”
They go into town, walking a respectful distance from each other and not behaving in any manner that would raise suspicion. Phil had held Dan’s hand on the deserted tube platform but Dan had dropped it as soon as the train came. “Soon”, he said, apologetically. “I promise soon,” but they’ve both been saying that for a long time. Phil can judge a five centimetre gap between his shoulder and Dan’s from sight alone, even does it in photographs that no one but them will ever see, out of habit. Holiday photos with them barely touching elbows. “That’s funny,” Dan said, looking at the most recent Florida ones, but it wasn’t, not really.
Dan disappears in Waterstones, leaving Phil to wander aimlessly around the fantasy section. There’s a book based on some awful horror movie that he and Dan had watched, years ago, in a cinema in Manchester (absolutely not leaving five centimetre gaps between their shoulders back then). There’d been a lot of yellow, he thinks, but neither of them had been paying that much attention.
“I got you something,” Dan says, appearing from behind a shelf and pushing a black carrier bag at Phil.
It’s a notebook. Phil says, “For-”
“For the dreams, obviously.”
The notebook is leather bound in bright blue. Phil thinks he should remember that, from somewhere. “To write them down? I use my phone for that.”
“But, Phil,” Dan says, waving his hands mysteriously over the notebook. “Your blue aesthetic”.
Dan takes aesthetics very seriously. They have an entire celestial themed bedroom to attest to that (the secret bedroom, that is. The one that’s not for cameras). Phil does not. He just likes things that are bright, regardless of whether they clash with what he’s already wearing or everything else he already owns. Blue is fine though. He likes blue.
Phil takes the notebook. “Thanks.”
“You could read them to me.”
“Or I could do a video about them.” He can hear his own on screen voice now - Hey guys! So, I don’t know if it’s the move but I’m having reallllllllly weird dreams at the moment. Is this apartment haunted? Is it the ghost of Janice from the shop refusing to let me leave? Is it some Phil from the past trying to tell me something?
“No,” Dan says, shortly. “Just to me.”
--2. epistolary romance --
Next door there’s the sound of a hundred keys smashing and Dan yelling, “For fuck’s sake.”
Phil steps onto the balcony. The doors to Dan’s apartment are wide open, curtains (a soft dove grey) billowing out in the wind. Hello Kitty sits close to Phil’s side, her paw still saluting, waiting for a note that he doesn’t have.
Phil clears his throat and says, clearly as he can, “Stop being so hard on yourself.”
The music stops. There’s the shuffling of feet on wooden flooring and then Dan’s voice. “It sounds terrible.” His accent is posher than Phil had heard through the wall, a sweet blur on the O.
“It doesn’t. I’m not a piano expert but it definitely doesn’t.” Phil knocks the blue glass pieces of his windchime together. They don’t make a noise. “It does sound angry though.”
“Angry? I was aiming for sad and existential.”
“Wow,” Phil says. “It’s way too early for both of those things.”
“Not for me. I’m both of those things most of the time.”
“That sounds exhausting.” Phil moves to the corner of his railing and leans forward, on an angle, to see if he can see into Dan’s apartment. He can’t. Hello Kitty almost looks judgemental. He could, he thinks, jump over the tiny gap from him to Dan but, with his balance and coordination, it maybe isn’t the best idea to try.
“Stop that,” Dan says. “I can see you.”
“You can see me?” Phil turns around, looks everywhere he can think of, including back into his own living room.
“You should come out and speak to me then.”
“Don’t think so.” Dan pauses. “You never replied to my note.”
Phil says, “No, I stuck it on my fridge.”
“You stuck it on your fridge?” Dan sounds like he’s laughing, a quiet sort of laugh, ringing gently through the words. “It’s just a note with my name on it. That you never replied to.”
Phil retrieves his notes from the kitchen and writes I’m Phil. He sticks it right onto Hello Kitty’s forehead. “I just did.”
“That’s-” Dan stops. “I’m not coming out until you’ve gone.”
Phil says, “Why?” He doesn’t feel any great anticipation because he feels like he feels like he knows what Dan will look like. There’s no mystery beyond whether his hair will be straight or curly. “It’s not that bad out here.”
“I’m not coming out until you’ve gone,” Dan repeats.
Phil goes. He actually leaves the building entirely, walking down to the office to see PJ, hunched over his laptop. When he sees Phil he says, “You’re up before 1pm? I’m honoured.”
Phil leans over his shoulder. Still the same trailer, still the same yellow. The title card pops up and PJ sighs.
“If this is really for a student project then I’m pretty sure she’s gonna fail. That’s all I’m saying.”
“But she asked for me personally,” Phil says, too soft for PJ, still grumbling to himself, to hear.
“And The House on Zils Street is a terrible name.” PJ smashes at the enter key. “And is it a romance? Because I’m getting the vibe that it is.”
“The house on-”
“I googled it. Zils is blue in Latvian or something. And yet the whole thing is yellow. Is that meant to be clever? I hate student films.”
“We made student films.” Phil’s brain is still somewhere on zils. Zils means blue.
“Our student films were good,” PJ says. “We can’t rescue this, I know you like helping them but I’m not passing people’s degrees for them anymore.”
“But it’s hard sometimes, being a student, and I think we should help them, if we-”
“Then go and be a careers counsellor or something. I’m just trying to run an editing firm here.” PJ slams his laptop shut and says, “Sorry”, to either the Mac or Phil. PJ never stays angry for very long. “I’m sorry.”
Phil says, “That’s okay. I’d be a terrible careers counsellor anyway.”
PJ shrugs. “I just thought we’d be doing more actual movie trailers, you know? Not trying to make people’s artsy independent films look good.”
All that they’ve done for the past two years is make other people’s artsy independent films look good. None of them have really annoyed PJ this much. Phil says, “She asked for me personally. For some reason. So, I’ll do it.”
“Phil.” PJ blinks up at him. “It’s impossible. You don’t understand. I still don’t know if it’s a romance or a ghost story. You can’t tell.”
“I’ll make it a romance,” Phil says. “I like those more.”
When he gets back Hello Kitty has been joined by two extra mugs (Gatorland, Florida! and a World’s Number One Dad). Each mug has a post-it, covered in Dan’s scrawling handwriting.
confession i knew your name was phil sometimes you take phone calls on the balcony and i could hear you. same as i could hear you singing to the plants.
sometimes i wanted to open the door and say hi. but i don’t do that. opening the door i mean. it’s hard to explain and i can’t do it on a post it so i probably won’t do it ever.
you have a nice voice it’s friendly and calming. don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that before. can we keep doing this? the notes. it helps.
Phil replies we can keep doing the notes. And no one has ever called my voice calming before, so thanks. I’m glad it’s like that for you, if there’s something you need calming from (I hope not).
Dan plays Clair de Lune softly and airily. Phil could jump to his balcony. It wouldn’t even be a jump, it would be more like a hop. With his height it would be easy. He could throw open Dan’s patio doors, throw the curtains aside and-
PJ emails him the details of the film’s owner, the keeper of The House on Zils Street. A blue street for a yellow film. Her name is Dorothy Clark and PJ knows precisely three things about her - she asked for Phil personally, she paid up front and she was wearing ankle socks. Phil doesn’t question why PJ remembers the ankle socks above the colour of her hair and maybe how old she was, PJ isn’t great with remembering vital details.
PJ phones him, triumphantly, just as Phil is getting into bed. “No, I remember, she said to call her Dodie. It just came back to me. I said hi Dorothy and she distinctly said no, call me Dodie.”
“Four things, then,” Phil says. “We know four things about her.”
“Well those four and that she makes terrible movies.”
Phil says, “PJ”.
He gets up more than once to re-check the balcony. His note is still there, fluttering gently in the barely-there evening breeze.
--4. slow show--
Phil, awake but not quite awake, almost thinks the sound is something else. He’s disorientated and feels the sudden need for a notebook, a coffee and Dan. Not necessarily in that order. Thor continues to scream.
PJ says, “Is he okay?” He’s in the doorway, white coat over his arm, obviously having just got to work. He looks apprehensive, like he’s not sure whether or not to come in. He and Phil had been best friends, once. He would usually have bounced straight over and plucked Thor straight from Phil’s lap. Now PJ always looks slightly confused when they’re together, like the mood has shifted and he doesn’t know why. “Dan said that you’ve called him in a few times.”
“He’s fine,” Phil says, looking down at Thor. Thor, now realising that Phil’s awake, stops wailing. “He’s just a bit needy.”
“This isn’t going to be another Susan situation, is it?”
“I was thinking more Susan 4.”
(Phil had cried the day Susan 4 left. She was a baby ocelot that, as a tiny zoo perched just outside Manchester, they were in no way equipped to deal with and she had hated everyone except Phil, who could feed her from his hand and bump his knuckles on her head. He’d considered taking her home, had seriously researched how to keep an ocelot as a pet before, eventually, a safari park outside London took her.
Dan had put his hand on Phil’s back, right between his shoulderblades, and said, “We could go and visit her. I’ll take you.”
Phil, sniffing, said, “Really?”
“Sure,” Dan smiled, spread his fingers out into the fabric of Phil’s shirt. “I’ll drive. Just tell me when.”
Phil had never said when. Looking back he wants to reach into the memory and shake his past self).
Phil winces at the mere mention of Susan 4, and also the whisper of Dan’s hand on his back. “She still could have come to live with me. People keep them as pets all the time.” People, that is, who don’t own a stupid amount of houseplants and don’t leave all the cupboard doors open but, still, people.
“You could come with me and Dan. We’re going to London in two weeks, just on a visit. We could take you to see her.”
“With both of you?”
“Well, yeah.” PJ laughs awkwardly. “We’ll be going there together and you’re more than welcome to-”
“No, thank you,” Phil says, politely. “I wouldn’t want to impose. Not just after your anniversary.”
PJ starts, “It wouldn’t be imposing, you’re my-” and stops, unsure of the the present word. “We just haven’t spent much time together, since me and Dan, and it’d be nice if you could-”
Phil says, “I can’t,” for so many reasons, and stands up, holding Thor in the bend of his elbow. “There’s no need for you to take a look at him, he’s fine.”
“You need to put him back in with the others.” PJ folds his arms. “Otherwise this will all go on too long and they won’t accept him. You know that.” When Phil doesn’t say anything in reply, he says, “Hey, do you want to maybe get a coffee or something after work, it’s been awhile since-”
“I’m busy,” Phil says.
PJ is too nice a person to say busy with WHAT because he knows, and Phil knows, that there’s nothing to be busy with, but PJ would never call him out on it. He’s too kind and thoughtful and it’s really not his fault, the whole Dan situation, because Phil never said anything in the first place and how would PJ ever have known, when Phil never once said no, it’s Dan, I’m in love with Dan. I should have told you. PJ is the type of person who, in the very early days, would have shrugged and stepped aside, but Phil, as always, has just left things for too long.
“Maybe another time,” PJ says, sadly, just as Dan appears in the doorway next to him. “And think about the London thing.”
“What London thing?” Dan asks. He looks at Thor, then at Phil and smiles, left dimple only. Phil would give away a thousand Susan 4s just for that smile.
“It doesn’t matter,” Phil says, before PJ can. “And I’ll put him with the others, like you said.”
PJ sighs. “Fine, let me know how it goes. And, we’ll rearrange coffee. For when you’re not busy.”
Phil turns away to walk to Thor’s pen and hears the door close. He kneels, pushes some of the blue pebbles around and says, “Thor, I know this is going to be scary, but you can do it. Don’t let them bully you. You’re the God of Thunder and they’re just some other meerkats. You need to stand up for yourself.”
Thor tightens his claws into Phil’s shirt and whimpers.
Dan, sitting down next to him, says, “You’ve just got to do it.”
Phil jumps. “I thought you’d left.”
“No”. Dan doesn’t look at Phil, pulls at the cuffs of his coat and the laces of his shoes. “I know how worried you get when you’re putting them in the bigger pens.”
“You don’t need to wait with me.” Phil gently disengages Thor and drops him into his pen, then opens the little hatch on the front, the one that leads to the actual enclosure. “I know I get too attached to them. It’s ridiculous.”
“No it’s not.” Dan looks at Thor, trying to hide himself in one of the small hay piles. “You might need to give him a push.”
Phil says, “No, he has to be ready.”
Thor successfully covers himself with hay and then lies as still as he possibly can. Dan smiles again and says, “We could be waiting a while.”
“I’m fine with that.”
Dan pulls at a loose thread on his sleeve. “You’re busy tonight? Just, from what PJ said, it sounded like-”
Phil says, “Oh, yeah, so busy.”
“With what?” Dan’s voice is casual but his fingers are wrapping around the thread so hard that the tips are almost white. “With anyone I know?”
Phil frowns. “What? No.”
Dan visibly exhales. “Okay.”
Thor pushes his head out of the hay and immediately buries himself again when he realises they’re still there. Phil feels a sudden pang of pity for him, the smallest meerkat in the gang, knowing he won’t fit in so he’s given up and resorted to hiding in his room (if there was a tiny meerkat computer then it would essentially be Phil’s teenage years). “It doesn’t matter if they don’t accept him. I can still care for him here.”
“He’d be completely obsessed with you though,” Dan points out. “Sad when you’re not around and happy when you are. He’d never get over you, even though you were never really his owner in the first place.”
“But he’d see me. I’d check on him all the time.”
“It wouldn’t be enough,” Dan says, “It would never be.”
“Oh.” Phil blinks down at Thor, who is still frozen under the hay. “Poor Thor.”
“Yeah.” Dan huffs a not quite laugh. “Poor Thor.”
--3. caramel macchiato--
“I’m sorry,” Phil says, both to PJ and the steady line of customers going out of the door. “I’m so sorry. I’m just really tired.” He’d woken up with nothing but a pile of receipts to write on and they’re currently stuffed in the front pocket of his apron: ms.clark, the meerkat is called thor, the plant is called thor, he covers weddings but, the piano, blue and yellow, the house.
“Phil,” PJ says. “I know I’m just your boss and all, but you need to see a doctor or something. You’re asleep all the time. Everytime I walk into the back room you’re asleep. How can you always be this tired?”
Only three customers have stayed. PJ makes Phil walk around to each of them with a tray of pastries for them to select, on the house for “the inconvenience”. The first two decline, so he sneakily eats a pair of pain au chocolats on their behalf.
The final customer is a girl, maybe early twenties, sat on the smallest table in the smallest corner. She’s wearing a lemon yellow tea dress and drinking from a cup and saucer that Phil isn’t sure that they provide. When he gets closer she smiles up at him, delicate pixieish features bright with something like recognition.
Phil holds the tray out. “For the inconvenience.”
“It wasn’t inconvenient,” she says. She keeps smiling. “You look nicer with your hair redder.”
Phil says, “Sorry?” and touches his hair, self consciously, at the roots where his natural colour comes through. It doesn’t look nice redder. He just hasn’t got the energy to dye it.
Her smile fades completely. “Oh. You don’t remember. Of course you don’t.”
“I think you’ve got the wrong person.”
She shakes her head. “I left you a message. Somewhere else. Did you get it?”
“A message?” Phil looks down at her table, expecting to see a note, or something written in sugar packets. “Here?”
“You didn’t get it.”
She looks sad. Phil feels like he’s letting her down, accidentally, in some way out of his control. “I’m really sorry, but you definitely have the wrong person. I haven’t had a message.”
“You’ll understand,” she says. “You just need to concentrate. I’ll have an inconvenience pastry please.”
Phil watches her take a croissant from the tray and feels the need to say, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It could be too soon. But you’ll understand. I did.” She nods down at the seat next to her. There’s a guitar case. When Phil looks back up she nods again, like this is something important that he should be reacting to.
“That’s a nice guitar,” Phil attempts.
“It’s the right one for me.”
“The right guitar?”
“The right time. Remember what I said.”
Phil walks back to the counter, almost feeling like he’d tripped into a corner of a dream accidentally, and has now managed to wander out. When he turns back around she’s eating her croissant slowly, one flake of pastry at a time. He says, “PJ, have you seen that girl before?”
PJ says, “Why, do you like her?”
Phil says, “Have you seen her?”
“She plays guitar at Zils House sometimes. All, like, pretty little songs, kinda twee sounding, lots of fairy lights. I don’t remember her name though.” PJ leans over the till and repeats, “Why? Sophie might know her, I can ask her to put a word in.”
Dan, at the counter all of a sudden, says, “Put a word in with who?”
PJ, who (as far as Phil knows) has never even spoken to Dan before, says, “The girl in the yellow.”
Dan frowns over at the corner table. “What girl?”
Both she and her guitar have gone. PJ shrugs and says, “Huh. Better luck next time, Phil,” before walking over to start cleaning the table surface.
Phil, alone with Dan, says, “I’m not interested.”
Dan, startled, says, “What?”
“In her, I mean. I’m not interested.” It is suddenly very important to Phil that Dan knows this. “She just said something strange and I was asking about her, that’s all.”
Dan says, “I really don’t mind,” but he looks somewhat relieved. “Caramel macchiato?”
“I can’t, sorry. Someone burnt all the milk. We’re waiting for more.”
“Was that someone you?”
Phil shrugs. “Possibly.”
Dan smiles. The lack of dimples is still off-putting. “I don’t know why that’s so unsurprising.”
“It’s really not.” Phil watches Dan tap at the glass of the dessert display case. “So, you might need to go somewhere else for your macchiato.”
“No,” Dan says. “I want to stay here.” He looks like he surprises himself with the tone and pretends he’s suddenly very interested in the pile of scones on the top shelf.
“I can literally only offer you water.”
“That’s fine. It’s important to stay hydrated.”
(Phil hears another Dan say “are we overdoing the water thing? Are all the asks on my younow going to be asking if I’m hydrated? I’ve taken it too far again, haven’t I?”)
Phil pushes the bottle of water towards him. Dan gives him a five pound note. Phil says, “No, it’s only like, a pound or something, you don’t-”
Dan says, “Consider it a tip.” He stands at the counter for a few seconds, water in hand. “Can I have a cup?”
“For the water?”
“It feels weird to leave here without a cup that you’ve written on.”
Phil writes DAN on one of their plastic cups and passes it over. He ensures that his fingers brush Dan’s knuckles while Dan is, apparently, trying to do the same to him. It’s the most awkward cup transfer ever but worth it for how Dan ducks underneath his too straight fringe and gets a perfect patch of red on his jawline. Phil says, “Sorry,” and doesn’t mean it, not even a little bit.
Dan says, “That’s okay, it was my-” and then, in an explosion of nervous energy, stuffs another five pound note and a cobalt marble into the tip jar. “I should- When will the machine be fixed?”
“Soon?” Phil guesses.
“I’ll be back,” Dan says. “I’ll come back.”
Dan spins on his heel and leaves. He forgets the bottle of water but takes his DAN cup with him.
--5. the dream synopsis--
Phil says, “I”, then claps, “Can’t.”
“You,” clap, “Have-”
“Stop,” Phil says. “The clapping, please stop.”
“I’m just making my point.”
“You made your point. You made it yesterday, in Starbucks, and then at lunch, and then when we went for drinks after work, and then when you texted me in the taxi home. You making it again now, in Starbucks. I get it.”
“You don’t, Phil. You don’t. I checked your appointments today, you have one. And guess who that is?”
“I couldn’t take him off my rota. I tried. I just can’t.”
PJ, incredulous, says, “Then, I’ll do it.”
“No, Peej, you don’t understand.”
PJ sits back and regards Phil for a second. “What, do you like him?”
Phil, finally, makes it real, makes it an actual conscious thing that is happening, and says, “Yes.”
PJ’s mouth is a perfect O. He blinks rapidly a few times and says, “I thought it was one sided. I thought he liked you and it was awkward and you’re too nice to actually delete the rota and send him to student advisory. You like him.”
“I tried to-”
“It’s not one sided. It’s two sided. It’s both sided. It’s reciprocated.”
“It’s a mess,” Phil says. “That’s what it is.”
Phil can’t even think about the fact that it might be reciprocated. He especially can’t think about the fact that it almost definitely is. He’d known it, really, from the first meeting when he had said, “The stars aren’t dying, Dan, they’re just being replaced with new, brighter ones,” and Dan had blinked at him, and somewhere in the second before and after that motion, the reopening of Dan’s eyelids, Phil had seen and had known. He’s not usually used to seeing that from people, the sudden flicker of interest. People don’t look at Phil like that. Not ever. But it hadn’t been a flicker of interest from Dan, it had been an entire bonfire.
“You have an appointment with him today?” Phil nods. PJ sighs. “Tell him then, tell him that you can’t be his counsellor anymore. You don’t have to tell him why.”
“He knows why.”
“You’ve told him you like him?”
“Not in actual words.”
“Phil,” PJ leans forward as best he can in the stupidly low armchairs they’re sitting on. “You could lose your job if anything happens. If you keep on seeing him every day something is going to happen.”
“I want it to,” Phil says. “I know that it’s-”
“He’s not some cute guy you’ve met in a bar or on the street or whatever, he’s a student.You’re torturing yourself by continually making appointments with him. Email him and cancel. I’ll do it for you.”
Phil lets him, later, when they’re back in Phil’s office. PJ doesn’t trust him to do it and Phil doesn’t trust himself either. The email is formal, too formal, obviously not him - Dan will know it’s not from him. PJ says, “This sound okay? Does it sound like what you would write?” and Phil lies and says, “Yes.”
They’ve known each other too long, him and PJ, for that to stick. Phil’s a terrible liar. PJ looks up at him, flicking curls from his forehead, and says, “I hope you know what you’re doing,” and Phil tells the complete truth and says, “I don’t. I don’t know at all.”
this isn’t you, Dan replies, just as PJ leaves, like he can see somehow that Phil is alone again. why have you sent me this? is this because of the other day? if you don’t want me to say anything i won’t, i promise, i’ll take the leaflets and listen and pretend. i just want to see you.
Phil replies, The email is correct. I’m removing you from my list and referring you to student advisory. The last part is copied and pasted from PJ’s email.
Phil has to delete it, quickly, before he responds.
--6. dan howell--
Dan, reading it later, lets soggy cereal drop from his spoon and says, “Took Dan off the rota. Didn’t want to but I had to. Can’t see him. Want to see him.” He eloquently adds, “What the fuck does this mean?” It’s the first page in the book so Phil had used his best handwriting. Dan is staring at it like it’s the ugliest thing he’s ever seen. “What rota?”
“I think I’m a teacher and you’re a student.”
Dan raises his eyebrows. “And that’s something you’re into? Because we could-”
“It’s not that kind of dream. I don’t think it’s a dream at all.”
“Is student me interested?” Dan says. “If he’s not then he’s not really me.”
Phil’s brain is too sleep fuddled and sad to say anything other than, “He’s interested, I think.”
“Maybe it’s just an alternate timeline where I finally got to live out my university fantasy of meeting a cute lecturer with dark hair and glasses and he would-”
“We were already dating when you were in university,” Phil interrupts, jealous of this imaginary dark-haired-glasses-wearing lecturer. “And, what do you mean, alternate timeline?”
Dan shrugs. “Like, you know, the infinite nature of the universe and how there’s most likely a hundred other planets identical to this one with identical Dans and Phils, living out our lives in a hundred different ways, and the fragile nature of our existence, and how all the stars are dying, and -”
“The stars aren’t dying Dan, they’re just being replaced with newer, brighter ones.”
Phil feels in a morose mood all day and also uncharacteristically clingy. Dan is the clingy one usually, Dan is the one who has to have Phil in his line of sight 90% of the time, Dan is the one who needs constant reassurance that yes, Phil is here, no, Phil isn’t going anywhere, yes, Dan is enough for Phil, Dan is everything for Phil, Dan is too much for Phil, yes, Phil loves him as much as he did that day on a train platform in Manchester, always.
“This is a role reversal,” Dan finally says, softly, at about 11pm when they’re packing the film equipment away. Phil is trying to stuff their umbrella reflector back in the cupboard while simultaneously not letting go of his grip on Dan’s waist.
“It shook you up,” Dan says. “The hot student-teacher dream.”
“It’s not- we didn’t even do anything.”
“Oh,” Dan smiles the smile that usually signals the start of something. “Is that why you’re sad?” He holds a hand out to Phil, raises his eyebrow questioningly. “Do you need to-”
Phil says, “Please,” as if he is pulling it from the lines of a sentence he never typed. “Please. I want to see you too”.
Dan laughs and tugs Phil closer towards him. “You can see me. I’m right here. You’re so weird.”
--1. absent treatment--
Dan’s name sounds odd in PJ’s voice. Phil gets a sudden burst, from nowhere, of PJ (but not PJ, his voice is lighter and without such a strong accent) saying hey, so me and Dan-; Phil’s instant reaction of no, it isn’t fair, it was meant to be me, me and Dan.
PJ’s ever present smile falters a little. “Phil?”
Phil says, “Sorry. He was fine. Absolutely fine.”
“He looked like a journalist.”
“He wasn’t. He isn’t.”
PJ doesn’t look entirely convinced. “What was the case?”
Phil hums and pushes his breakfast around the plate. “Just this and that, nothing that-”
“Dreams,” says PJ. “That’s what he said. Tell me it isn’t another dream one.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that-”
“Phil. Send him to Louise. Give him one of her cards and send him there. Is that what you did?”
Phil says, “No. I gave him a journal.”
“A journal.” PJ sighs. “Like your journal. Pages of things that don’t make sense. Are you planning to compare notes?”
Hey, so me and Dan, lighter voiced PJ continues, as close as if he was whispering into Phil’s ear. It’s weird, he’s never really looked at me twice before, but I’ve always thought he was cute, you know that, but after you left, why did you leave, by the way? I was speaking to him and I could sort of tell, you know, and it was out of nowhere, but I- Phil, are you okay?
PJ says, “Phil.”
“Yes,” Phil says, verging on hysterical. “Yes, I want to compare notes. It sounds the same, like Ms. Clark sounded the same, and I just want to-”
“Phil. Give him Louise’s card. Give Ms. Clark Louise’s card. Go and see Louise yourself. This is nonsense.”
They have a case in Finsbury, a sad one. Phil didn’t want to do it. PJ didn’t want to it. It’s a couple in their early forties (Mr and Mrs Howard) who lost their daughter. Three years old. They live in a huge, sprawling house inherited from a grandparent and they only ever say lost when referring to her, as though she is misplaced and they’re going to find her, one day, crouched under one of the huge antique dressers. PJ, at the start, had thought that the house was big enough that she could, theoretically, be running around in it, room to room, but not for months. Not by herself.
That’s what the parents are saying. They can hear her footsteps, skipping and jumping, when they’re in bed at night. They keep making plans for when Phil and PJ “find her.” Mr. Howard keeps saying that she’s “in the wrong place. She needs to come back here, this is the right one.”
“The right what?” PJ says, on the bus, reading through their case notes. They’ve been to the house five times, there’s nothing. The pipes are new and recently fitted. There aren’t any creaking floorboards, no draughts through the windows or doors that don’t sit right in the frame.
“The right place,” Phil says. “That’s what the father said.”
They haven’t been there for four months but the Howards meet them like they all just saw each other yesterday, rushing down the little stone pathway of their house. Mr. Howard says, “Philips!” excitedly (because he’s convinced himself that PJ’s real name is Philip. It’s not). “We heard her yesterday! Loudly! I think she’s on her way back.”
“That’s great news Mr. Howard,” PJ says, politely. “Let’s see if we can find her.” When Mr. Howard’s back is turned, running back to his wife, PJ turns to Phil with a stricken look on his face. He hates the Howard Job.
They go through the usual routine inside. Mr. Howard shows them both where they’d heard her, a door that they claim she’s opened, a doll that’s moved, that sort of thing. They make interested, amazed noises before PJ goes upstairs with Mr. Howard and Phil takes up his usual position in the parlour; lime teacup on his lap, crying client to his left.
“Oh Phil,” wails Mrs. Howard.
Phil pats her on the shoulder. “It’s good news that you keep hearing her Mrs. Howard. That’s a really good sign. It means that she’s trying to get your attention.” All things that people want to hear. “She wants you to know she’s there.”
She looks at him. Her eyes are a clear jade green that widen when she says, “Oh Phil. Not you too.”
Phil says, “Sorry?”
“In the wrong place.” She smacks her open palm to her forehead. “Everyone’s in the wrong place.”
Phil repeats, “Sorry?” but Mrs. Howard has, as always, fallen into incomprehensible sobbing. Phil pats her shoulder until his tea turns cold.
“I hate that job,” PJ says, after another hour of writing notes in the presence of Mr. Howard, who nods along vigorously to every sentence. Notes that PJ will file away in a special drawer of his desk never to be looked at again until the Howards send another telegram. “It’s the worst.”
The Howards overpay, like they always do, and both Phil and PJ feel too guilty to spend it, like they always do, so the bank notes get stuffed into the donation box at Great Ormond Street before they go to a (cheap) dining house near Russell Square.
--5. the dream synopsis--
Phil says, “My office hours are twelve thirty until four. You know this.”
“I have to talk to you.”
“About your career guidance needs?” Phil asks, hopefully and also not hopefully.
“I never need help with my career guidance needs,” says Dan. “Especially not from you.”
Phil juggles his rucksack and cup of coffee, hand to hand, as he tries to find his keys. “Well, that’s a nice thing to say, considering that I’m-”
“No. I mean that’s not what I want from you.”
Phil stops. Dan is looking at him, the fake indifference gone from his face, something between bravery and hope in his eyes, like he’s steadying himself to jump off something high, toes right on the edge, hopping from one balcony to the other. Phil says, “We can’t talk about this here. We shouldn’t talk about this at all.”
“I have to talk about it,” Dan says, more than an element of pleading to his voice. “I can’t think about anything else, you don’t understand.”
“I do. Believe me, I understand completely, but nothing can happen, talking about it is just going to make it worse.”
Dan says, “When I got your email yesterday I felt it. Here.” He taps at the plaid of his shirt, about where his heart would be. “It hurt, not being around-”
“Dan. Please. Not in the corridor.”
“Then let me into your office.”
The hope in Dan’s expression overtakes the bravery. “But you will?”
Phil almost does. The act of doing so is milliseconds away, his right hand finds his keys, his left hand almost drops his coffee, he steps one inch closer to Dan, and then one inch more, until he can almost see his exhales touching Dan’s cheeks. Dan closes his eyes in anticipation and Phil is about to drop the stupid coffee on the floor to be able to touch his fingers to Dan’s jaw but-
“No. I’m not.”
Dan opens his eyes and stares at some spot just above Phil’s head.
“It’s a crush,” Phil says, finally. “That’s all. Look at you, there are so many better options out there for you. You don’t want to waste your time sitting in my office.”
“It’s not a crush.” Dan speaks quickly, barely taking a breath, determined not to let Phil interrupt him. “I told you. When I’m not around you, it hurts, it physically hurts, and when I do see you I feel so happy, and I’m never happy, you don’t understand how not happy I am most of the time, but you- I’m like the best version of me around you. How can you say that-”
“Dan,” Phil says. “I’m going in my office now. Okay? And, please, just go to your lectures. Promise me.”
Dan’s mouth is still open on that. He has to regain composure and say, “This sounds oddly final.”
“I should have taken you off my rota the moment you walked in. Because it might hurt you to not be around me but it hurts me to be around you.”
Dan says, softly, “In a bad way?”
“Sort of,” Phil says.
“We could meet outside uni, I could come to-”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Phil says. Because he’d almost said yes, where? When? “I’m going to pretend that we both didn’t say any of this.”
“You’re going to pretend that this whole conversation never happened?”
Dan says, “Okay,” rocks forward on his toes, and presses his mouth to the space beneath Phil’s ear. Phil leans into it, touches his fist (clutched around his office key) to Dan’s hip. Dan hums. Phil steps away, Dan steps with him, Phil steps away further.
“That never happened,” Dan says.
Phil takes half a step back towards him. “I don’t-”
Dan, back in his space, says, “What? You don’t what?”
“I meant I can’t. That’s what I should have said, I can’t.”
“I want to see you. Outside of here. Can I see you?”
“Yes,” Phil says. Then, “No, no, you can’t.”
Dan touches his fingertip to the same space that his mouth had been, seconds before. He says, “Can I just, for a second, can-”
Phil says, “Yes.”
Louise, appearing at the top of the corridor and, blessedly, looking down at her shoes, says, “Hello Phil!”
Phil jumps back, dropping both coffee and keys, makes an undignified noise that’s almost like a squawk. Dan stays exactly where he was. Phil says, “Louise!”
She finally looks up. “Hi. Oh, and Daniel, isn’t it? It’s early, have you changed your office hours?”
“Nope!” Phil doesn’t know why he keeps exclaiming. His voice is high pitched and too much. “Still the same! Dan just forgot!”
“I didn’t,” Dan mumbles. “I would never forget.”
“He was just going!”
“I was just going,” Dan repeats.
Phil doesn’t watch him leave. He can’t. He kneels to collect his keys, accepts Louise’s Disney princess tissues to mop up the coffee and ignores her raised eyebrow. She says, “He’s your appointment.”
“I have other appointments. Sometimes.”
“But he’s the one. Your appointment.”
Phil, patience clinging by a thread, says, “What are you trying to-”
“Nothing,” Louise says, quickly. “I didn’t mean to speak out of turn, I was just saying. We can share, if you’d like, appointments. I’ve always got too many to fit in.”
It makes sense. Louise’s office smells of lavender and she prepares little packs for every student who has a session with her, emails to check on their progress. Phil sometimes thinks that he should make an appointment with her. He says, “That’s nice of you, Louise. Thanks.”
She smiles and leaves him, kneeling in a pool of spilt coffee with a wad of Mulan tissues in his hand, keys just out of his reach. He can’t summon up the energy to lean over and grab them and so PJ, arriving twenty minutes later and saying what the fuck Phil, has to both pull him to his feet and let him into his own office.
“This is about Dan,” PJ says. “Isn’t it?”
“Of course it is,” Phil says. “Everything is.”
--2. epistolary romance --
Phil stares down at the note, not on any mug and not on a post-it, on an actual piece of notepaper, held down to the balcony floor by one of Phil’s blue gemstones. Which means that Dan must have actually leant right over to Phil’s side of the railing, touched his hand right to the ground that Phil’s standing on.
(He had woken up with his fist against the hinge of his jaw, right beneath his ear. Apparently it had been there for some time because now his neck and jaw and heart all ached).
Phil looks to see if there are any other pages, ones that might have blown away on the breeze. There aren’t any, just the one line. Dan needs calming from everything.
(His notice board is getting full, things that he doesn’t understand. He isn’t overwhelmed with curiosity about Dan because he knows, he knows, what Dan looks like. With curls and without, with dimples and without, in black, in white, standing in a doorway, hiding on another balcony).
I’m a calming person, Phil replies. Or so I’m told. You can tell me about everything, if you want to.
Dan replies almost instantly, a flurry of balcony doors opening, footsteps and then closing. tell me about you i want to know everything about you.
There’s not really much to tell. I co-run an editing firm with my friend PJ. We edit trailers mainly, try to make them look good, but it’s not really as glamorous or exciting as PJ was expecting. When I’m not at work or with PJ I’m mostly by myself. I wish I could play the piano like you do. I’m not sleeping very well at the moment and it helps me.
The House on Zils Street, on a rewatch, is definitely a romance. It’s so horribly filmed that Phil can barely make out the two actors’ faces, and they look so similar, but the slightly taller one keeps pulling the clumsy one out of danger and not letting go. There’s no dialogue, just a lot of the awful yellow text spinning in and out (A missing girl! A house out of time! What will happen when they go back to……...The House on Zils Street?). Phil sighs and emails Dorothy to ask if he can get rid of the writing and maybe get some clips with actual speaking in. It will help, he writes. It will help everyone understand the story.
A message! The yellow text trills. A message not understood!
i play the piano. like for a living, which is ridiculous because i’m not great at it and i keep waiting for someone to come and ask me what i think i’m doing. i mostly compose stuff for video games which is great because i can do it by email and i don’t have to leave the house. i don’t really leave the house ever. you probably know that already.
i don’t sleep well either it’s gotten worse recently i hear you pacing around you probably hear me pacing around too.
“Then come over,” Phil mumbles, to himself. “Just, come over.”
--1. absent treatment--
“I thought you’d approve of the colour scheme,” Dan says, watching Phil clutch his heart (blue and fragile) between his fingers. “You like blue, right? Based on your desk.” He produces a little cotton bag from his coat pocket, stuffed with the confetti. “I saved some for you.”
Phil says, “Thank you,” and takes the bag. Dan always offering him pieces of blue. “I’ll throw it around the office. PJ will be so pleased.”
Dan smiles, shakes bluebells from his hair, and says, “Where should we go?”
Phil says, “Anywhere,” too quickly.
“I meant,” Dan flushes. “To look at the diary.”
They go to Hyde Park. It’s not too far from the church and the weather is nice enough to sit outside, the sort of frosty cold that makes Phil want to run through the grass, crunching it under his feet. Dan sits with his legs folded under him, watching the wind dance through Phil’s fringe. Phil holds the diary on his lap and finds that he can’t open it.
“There’s not much,” Dan says, apologetically. “Like I said, I don’t remember them. Just one or two details but not people or places. And I know there are people there because I always feel like I’ve been speaking to someone. Does that make sense?”
“Someone that you like?” Phil asks.
Dan thinks for a second. “Sometimes. I never wake up feeling angry or anything, but sometimes I feel a little sad about them. Or sort of impatient. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Phil opens to the first page. Dan’s handwriting is still terrible. He squints until he makes out the word coffee.
“I remember the smell of it,” Dan clarifies. “But it’s not like any coffee here.”
Phil says, “Coffee,” half to himself.
The next page says piano and Dan sighs. “That’s the best one. The piano is white and I think it belongs to me, possibly. I wanted to be a pianist, like I said last week, but my parents didn’t really approve and I had a terrible teacher, and also I’m-”
“Too hard on yourself,” Phil finishes.
Dan looks at him. “So I’m told. How would you-”
Phil says, “White coat,” from page three.
“That’s it for that one. It’s the one I feel saddest after.”
Phil gives himself an order, even pinches himself on the arm to punctuate it, that if the next page mentions anything about law or house moves he will tell Dan. He’ll bring his own diary out of the inside of his coat and say look, look at this, and Dan will say-
The next page says twelve thirty until four.
Dan says, “I don’t know what that means either. But it seems important.”
“And you don’t remember the people? Or if anyone’s there with you?”
“I think people are there but I remember more how they make me feel instead of who they actually are.” Phil’s words catch on what he wants to ask next but Dan, understanding, clarifies, “I like them. A lot.”
Phil says, “Right,” and neatly copies Dan’s notes into his own notebook.
Dan watches him. “What do you want to do next?”
“With this, the case. If you’re calling me a case, that is.”
“I’m not calling you a case.”
Dan smiles. “That’s good then. So, what next?”
I’d like to take you out to dinner, Phil thinks. I’d like to get to know you, this real version of you. I want to know what you like and don’t like, I want to know who bought you that coat, I want to know how you ended up covering weddings, I want, I want.
“I should come home with you,” is what he ends up saying.
Dan’s entire face turns pink, no more delicate little flushes on his cheekbones. “Uh-”
“For the job,” Phil says. “You said that the dreams started in the house, when you moved in the rooms.”
“You want to come back there? With me?”
Dan says, “You had it written on a folder, Zils Street. It was on the other desk, the one not covered in blue.”
Phil remembers PJ just loosely pushing the folder to one side, not hiding it from view at all. “We’ve been there before.”
Dan looks at him, considering. “When?”
“About three months ago. Probably just before you moved in. The person, the gentleman who lived there before you, he- he was a difficult case.”
“But I’m not.”
“A difficult case? I don’t know about that.” Phil folds his notebook back into his inside pocket. “You’re-” he stops. Dan waits. Phil says, “We did a case there, in your house. Maybe in your rooms. He said all sorts of strange things and it wasn’t a case we should have done, really, but PJ thought it sounded different and interesting.”
“And was it?”
“It was both of those things.”
Dan shifts on the bench seat. “I have to go back for the reception. They’re having a ten tier iced rose cake with three different kinds of ice cream and apparently that’s the most important part of the wedding.”
“It would be to me,” Phil says, enviously.
“I would say to come with me but-”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean-”
“I would want you to come with me, it’s just-”
“Steal me a slice.”
Dan smiles. “That cake cost five hundred pounds, they won’t let the press within two steps of it.”
“Tell me when it’s a good time for me to come to your house.”
“You’re not going to bring Liguori?”
Phil knows that he should be. But he feels entirely too possessive of Dan, like he wants to keep him in a jar, or pressed forever in the pages of his dream diary. “No, just me.”
Dan looks very pleased about this. When Phil walks him back to the church he collects a whole handful of the confetti, still clutching to the trees outside, and drops it over Phil’s head.
Phil says, “Thank you,” and doesn’t take any of it out until he’s back in the office. Then he shakes every last piece of it over his desk, never to be tidied up.
PJ, warily, says, “Daniel Howell?”
“The dreams,” Phil says. “They’re the same. PJ, I swear they are.” He puts both his notebooks on his desk, his plain black workbook (with Dan’s notes neatly copied) and his green dream diary. “Look, I wrote piano and so did he.”
“I wrote all of this, about the coffee house. And he wrote coffee too.”
PJ raises an eyebrow. “I admit that one’s a little-”
“I remember them better than he does, I think, but they’re the same.”
“You’re dreaming the same dreams?” PJ says. Then, suddenly, “Or are you in each other’s dreams? Is he the one? The same person you said that you kept seeing?”
“He doesn’t remember,” Phil says. “And they’re not like dreams, I told you. I have memories, and feelings, and whole backstories. That’s not a dream. And Dan’s not a dream.”
PJ opens and closes his mouth a few times, gulping in air, before he finally says, “You need to see Louise. I’m ordering it. I can’t - this is outside our remit. This is- this is what he said, isn’t it? Zils Street. This is what he said.”
They stay late, PJ fluttering around like a concerned mother hen and Phil updating his Dan Howell file, correcting the spindling lines of his spider diagram - the five; coffee, piano, vet, university and together. The last word comes almost of its own accord.
They don’t leave until 11pm, even later than the lawyers across the corridor. PJ empties the numerous coffee cups while Phil checks their mail box.
The only thing inside is a slice of iced rose wedding cake, neatly wrapped in glacier blue tissue paper.
--5. the dream synopsis--
His academic diary is covered, almost to the end of next month, with notes that seem to be making more sense. He wakes up remembering more. He remembers how the wedding cake tasted, remembers another PJ, looking like a true 1920s dandy in a tweed jacket, picking off the icing. He remembers Dan, tiny blue hearts at his temples.
Mr. Howard, who teaches environmental law, emails and says I had the privilege of Daniel Howell’s presence in my seminar today. He didn’t participate and I think he was on his phone, but it’s progress. Your meetings must be working.
Phil thinks, well, he promised. He promised me he’d go.
There are a pile of pamphlets posted into his office post box. All the useless ones that he gave to Dan, the ones on being a journalist, or a vet, or following a career in music. Leaflets he handed over just so that he wouldn’t have to look at Dan, but also so that he could brush their fingertips together. Leaflets that Dan politely accepted, every time.
Dan has written his phone number on the inside front page of all of them. call me call me call me.
Phil, sternly, tells himself, Phil, do not save his number to your phone, don’t do it. He tries to imagine PJ’s voice, Louise’s raised eyebrow. Don’t do it.
He saves the number to his phone.
--4. slow show--
Thor can’t do it. He keeps spinning around to try and bite at Phil’s fingers. Billy, Bobby, Brenda and Barry watch with interest. Thor chirps up at Phil as if to say why, why are you embarrassing me like this, in front of everyone?
“I’m sorry,” Phil says. Thor doesn’t look like he accepts this.
Dan, sat cross legged next to him, says, “He knows you’re not really going to do it.”
“You’ve given him four treats already. And most of them were for no reason whatsoever.”
“No, they were all for no reason whatsoever.” Phil pushes at Thor’s back legs. “Come on Thor.”
Dan watches Thor push his face into Phil’s open hand. “He’ll never learn. He’ll never want to leave you.”
“He’s too small!” Phil says, “The others will bully him. Billy definitely will. He’s the meanest one.” Billy, as if hearing this, chirps indignantly.
Dan sighs. He’s been in and out of the enclosure for the past two days, checking on Thor’s progress. And probably checking on Phil’s progress too. They’re doing this one late at night, when the pen is in misty darkness; Phil had thought it would distract Thor, Dan (ever the realist) had said, “But it’s not going to-” and then stopped, finished off with, “If you think it’ll work.”
It wasn’t working. They should have gone home hours ago. But Dan had brought caramel macchiatos and a huge furry blanket and also an entire array of his most soft and warm expressions. Phil had mimed hiding Thor’s face from the fur but really wanted to cover his own so he wouldn’t have to look at Dan, not when he looks like this. It isn’t fair, on his eyes or his heart.
“You can’t- I know you’ve probably researched keeping him as a pet, I know there’s probably a lady in California who keeps a ranch of them or something, but-”
“There’s one in Utah. And I just want to keep him where he’s safe.”
“I know you do. I love that you do. It’s just that he-”
Phil says, “What?”
Dan blinks. “What?”
“You said that-”
“That he’ll get too reliant on you and that we’ll never be able to acclimatise him. That’s what I was going to say.”
“He’s probably not that attached to me. Why would he be?”
“Why wouldn’t he be?” Dan crushes the cardboard coffee cup in his hand.
Phil gently removes the crumpled mess of it from Dan’s fist. “You didn’t have to wait with me.”
“I wanted to,” Dan says. “It’s my anniversary and here I am, sitting in a meerkat enclosure with you instead.”
“Well, that was the wrong choice.”
Dan says, “Was it?”
Phil looks at Dan. The blanket is looped right around both of their legs, almost tying them together. Dan is pulling at the fabric of it, frowning like he’s having a inner conversation with himself and also finding himself incredibly tiresome. Phil says, “What do you mean?”
Dan doesn’t look up. “On the night of the party you left early, you remember? We’d been talking, for such a long time, and I was happy because we didn’t talk as much as I wanted, but then you left, and I tried to find you, but I-”
“More coffee!” PJ exclaims.
Phil springs back, half takes Dan with him in the pile of fur and says, “PJ.”
PJ hands the coffee to Phil. “Hi. I’m just here to steal Dan from you.”
Phil’s spiderweb cracked heart takes a jolt. He says, “Sorry?”
“For our anniversary. It’s really sweet that he came to help you out.”
Dan, very softly, says, “I don’t mind.”
“But I’ve booked surprise reservations and a boat trip, so I’ve come to take him away.” PJ leans down.
Dan looks at Phil. “I could stay.”
“No,” Phil says, with some effort. “You should go.”
“Great!” says PJ, pulling Dan to his feet.
(“Hey, so me and Dan. It’s weird, he’s never really looked at me twice before, but I’ve always thought he was cute, you know that, but after you left, why did you leave, by the way? You two were together all night, weren’t you? Anyway, I was speaking to him and I could sort of tell, you know, and it was out of nowhere, but I- Phil, are you okay?”
“Yes,” Phil said, feeling like he could cry, could ball up his fists, press his face into them and sob. “You and Dan? That’s-” He couldn’t finish. There was no word that he could finish with.
“I know, it’s great. I like him. I had no idea that he liked me but, I guess, you never see these things yourself do you? Until it’s right there.”
Phil, who had spent the evening, the previous evening, in some kind of dream, looking at his own star filled eyes reflecting in Dan’s, not sure if it was really happening, wanting to cup his hands around the flicker of interest that he could see, nuture it up to a flame. Dan, tapping his fingers on the neck of his beer bottle, touching Phil’s arm, remembering things Phil had said, weeks, months ago.
“There was an emergency,” Phil said. “With the otters. I couldn’t tell him, I had to leave straight away, and then, I guess, I didn’t have the chance to text. I’m sorry if he thought that I’d left him.”
PJ shrugged, a constellation of stars in his eyes, and said, “Hey, it’s fine. It worked out pretty well in the end, didn’t it?”)
PJ says, “Bye Phil! Thanks for letting me take him.”
Phil, still caught in a blanket that’s now far too big for one person, says, “That’s okay.”
--1. absent treatment--
“Me,” Phil says, and waves. “Just me.”
Louise has the good grace and poise to only look shocked for half a second. “You? But you and PJ always say that this is a nonsense.” She gestures around her parlour, decked in scarlet with thick curtains blocking out the light and small table, with two facing chairs. Phil feels like he’s about to get his fortune read. “You always say that anyone could do it.”
“I know that we’re not always entirely nice about your job,” Phil replies, apologetically. They’re lucky Louise is a genuinely good person who rises above any form of teasing, even if it’s teasing with fondness. “But I need your help.”
Louise waves for him to sit down. “I’m listening.”
The chair is too small for his height. He ends up sitting sideways. “It’s dreams.”
Louise says, “Well, of course.”
“I’m just going to say it quickly, if that’s alright, and then- you can ask questions, if you want to, at the end.”
Louise sits opposite him, watches him put the two journals, his standard black workbook and battered green diary, on the table. “Dream diaries?”
“Three months ago, PJ and I went to a job on Zils Street, you remember? The gentleman on the second floor, he said there was a ghost, but that the ghost looked like him. We asked you about it, and you remember what you said.”
“I said it wasn’t a ghost,” Louise frowns. “I said that it’s possible to fall out of your own dreams.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re asking me this question about three months too late.”
“I know,” Phil says. “I know and I’m sorry. We were too focused on disproving it and we didn’t listen to you. We shouldn’t have done that. I think you were right.”
Louise tilts her head on one side. “Has something happened?”
Phil turns his green notebook to face her and starts leaving through the pages. “Since then, ever since then, every night for three months, I have dreams. But they’re not like dreams. And it’s the same five. There’s no real order but they pick up where they left off, like when I go to sleep here I’m waking up there. Do you understand?”
Louise reads, “Coffee, piano, vet, university and together.”
“Together with who?”
Phil pushes the black notebook forward. “His name’s Dan and he came into our office a week ago to ask for help with dreams that he keeps having. He lives on Zils Street. He’s in the dreams. He’s in all of them.”
“And you’d never seen him before?”
“No.” He opens the books to their matching pages. “And the dreams are the same.”
Louise doesn’t say anything for a little while. Her eyes flit between coffee, piano, vet, university and together - over and over.
“He doesn’t remember,” Phil supplies. “I remember, little things, but he doesn’t.”
“Are you in control of yourself in these dreams?”
“I don’t know. I’m almost another version of myself.”
“But if, in the dream, you decided to break a coffee cup, or smash down all the keys on the piano, if you wanted to do that, could you?”
“I haven’t tried,” Phil says. “I mostly, in whichever one I’m dreaming about, I just go along with it.”
“You only called one of them together.”
Phil says, “Yes. That’s the only one where we are together.”
Louise repeats, with great emphasis, “Together.”
Phil shifts awkwardly in his seat. “You know what I mean.”
“But you’re not in the other four? What are you doing there?”
“I’m in love with him in all of them. It’s just, we can’t be together in the others. There’s reasons why. And they make me sad. They make him sad, he said that he wakes up, thinking that-”
“Does he know? Have you told him?” Before Phil can answer she says, “No, no, don’t tell him. I’ve got it. The solution. You said it, you only called one of them together.”
“I don’t have to tell him. It’s not real. They’re not real.”
“Phil,” Louise says. “Remember what I said, about Zils Street. Remember all those other clients recently that you send over to me who think they’re in the wrong time, or they’ve fallen into the wrong place, and you and PJ both say oh, it’s just dreams, and I can give them some lavender to burn and that’ll help.”
Phil, hopefully, says, “Will it?”
“Would you want it to? Go to sleep and never see coffee, vet, piano, together or university again?”
“No,” Phil says. “I wouldn’t want that.”
“The gentleman on Zils Street didn’t have a long lost twin brother or whatever nonsense you and PJ came up with. It was him, in the wrong place. That little girl you always go and look for, over in Finsbury, she’s fallen into the wrong place.”
(A girl in a lemon dress, plucking pastry flakes from a croissant. It’s the right one for me, the right time.
Phil has a slight hit of another Dan, a Dan with a soft, posh voice that he makes louder for the cameras, shawled in an oversized striped t-shirt and saying like, you know, the infinite nature of the universe and how there’s most likely a hundred other planets identical to this one with identical Dans and Phils, living out our lives in a hundred different ways, and the fragile nature of our existence, and how all the stars are dying, and-).
“You’re saying I’m in the wrong place?” Phil asks, voice shaking.
“Well, no, this one is the right one, of course it is. It’s just, you’re not together here either, are you?”
Phil says, “But I want- I only just met him here.”
“I would say,” Louise replies. “That you need to be together in all of them. That would stop them.”
“That's not possible.”
“You have to think of a way,” Louise says. “Or, at least, see if you can impact on them in any way.”
Phil, weakly, says, “Break a cup?”
“It's a start.” Louise looks concerned. “And one of them will be real.”
“This one,” Phil says. “You said this one’s real. You said of course.”
Louise pats his hand. “Of course it is,” but her tone has the distinct air of someone only telling him what he wants to hear.
--6. dan howell--
Dan says, “Mmph?” He’s lying on his stomach, turned towards Phil with his cheek to the mattress and their fingers interlinked. “The what?”
“This one. This is the one I want it to be.”
Dan reaches out with their intertwined hands and bumps Phil on the nose. “Phil, wake up.”
Phil says, “What?”
Dan says, “What?” back, jokingly, but his eyes are wide, too wide for this early, and his face is pale, every freckle standing out. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“What was I saying?”
Dan shrugs, unconvincingly casual. “Nothing much.”
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil stares at his still-open palm, and then down at the shards of china.
“What did you do that for?” PJ hasn’t decided between annoyed and confused, his voice is somewhere between the two.
“To see if I could,” Phil says. “And, look, I can. I have control over my movements!”
Dan, at the counter, blinks twice very slowly and says, “That’s great.”
Phil says, “Dan!” with more volume than he meant. A voice that you'd use when you’ve been waiting months.
Dan says, “Hi. Caramel macchiato please.”
Phil writes DAN on the cup and also draws, just underneath, a sad face. When he passes it over he makes sure that he brushes his fingers on Dan’s knuckles, guarantees that a fingertip touches each one.
Dan flushes and says, “A sad face?”
“No, it’s your dimple.” Phil traces over it. Curve of dimple, two freckles.
Dan watches him. “But I don’t have a dimple.”
Phil shrugs. “Guess not.”
Dan says, “You’re-”
“It’s meant to-”
“You’re the strangest person.”
Phil, with new purpose, kicking pieces of china with his feet, pieces that he put there, says, “You should come back here. When you’re done with work.”
Dan looks down at his cup. “What for?”
“To see me,” Phil says.
Dan looks back up. He looks at Phil like they’re at a party Phil’s about to leave, like he’s standing outside Phil’s office before opening hours, like they’re sitting at a breakfast bar with their feet tangled together. “To see you?”
“If you wanted to.”
“I could,” Dan says, stammers a little. “I could.”
“You could want to?”
Dan says, “I- I should actually, I should go, because-” He shakes his head. “No, I- Are you here? Later? If I come back will you be here?”
“Twelve thirty until four,” Phil says. “But I can wait. I could wait for you.”
“Okay,” Dan says. He pours his wallet into the tip jar, far too much, flashes of blue. “Okay. Just don’t go anywhere, I won’t wait if you’re not here.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer and is gone in a swoop of expensive coat, the kind of exit that every version of Dan would love. Phil empties the jar of the marbles; indigo, cobalt and sapphire, an entire pile of them.
--2. epistolary romance --
But, the text, Phil replies. I think it’s a great idea if we remove the text.
No, says Dorothy. The text is the message and you still don’t understand it. You look nicer with your hair redder.
Phil hasn’t had his hair red for about fifteen years. And it definitely didn’t look nicer. He says were we in school together? That was the last time my hair was properly red. And it really wasn’t great.
Dan has left a post-it that Phil feels he’s read before. this isn’t you. why have you sent me this? is this because of the other day? if you don’t want me to say anything i won’t, i promise, i’ll take the leaflets and listen and pretend. i just want to see you.
Phil leaves it there with his own note, an arrow pointing and what does this mean? Why have you sent this to me again?
He goes back inside. Within two minutes Dan’s doors have opened and he’s shouting, “What do you mean, again?”
Phil, from his living room, respecting boundaries but knowing that now he could make the decision to storm right out there, onto his balcony and see, says, “You’ve sent that to me before.”
Dan sounds confused. “I don’t even remember writing it.”
Phil says, “I didn’t reply last time, I wanted to and I-”
There’s the soft noise of Dan’s patio doors closing.
“It was an email,” Phil mumbles, to himself. “Last time, it was an email.”
Dorothy replies. I’m not talking about your hair HERE. Don’t you get it?
Phil does not. He doesn’t get it. He feels different but in a muddled way, like there’s too much in his head. He could make a video about it. Why would he make a video about it, he doesn’t make videos. His office hours are twelve thirty to four, Dan shouldn’t be contacting him outside of his-
He grabs his pile of post-its and his pen, sticks the note to his only black mug, aims for his best handwriting, leans right over Dan’s balcony and leaves it in the centre, so Dan knows it’s important. I just want to see you too.
--5. the dream synopsis--
He has also, in some strange post-dream mood, written: coffee shop, editing, meerkat, 1920s, together. And then, after this, don’t put thor in the main enclosure he doesn’t want to go in the main enclosure.
PJ, eloquently, says, “What the fuck.”
“They’re just notes,” Phil replies, defensively, sweeping all the papers off his desk into his lap. “They don’t mean anything.”
They do though. They’re getting steadily more detailed, he wakes up remembering more, his hands clutched around the little details and looks that he’d never been able to catch before. Dan, looking at him, hair too straight and his face lacking dimples, lacking softness, and saying are you here later if I come back later will you be here. Phil doesn’t know if he was there, he’d woken up here, curled up in his ugly office chair and hoping, wishing, that he wasn’t asleep in another office, somewhere, in the backroom of a coffee shop. Wake up, he sends signals to his coffee shop self, wake up, he said that he wouldn’t wait if you’re not there.
“No,” says PJ. “And they also don’t look work related in any way whatsoever. You know we have to do the progress reviews this month, right?”
Phil frowns. “Peej, that’s only if you have more than three regular attendees.”
“Oh. Right. You just have the one attendee.”
“Had,” Phil corrects. “I had the one.”
“We’re still pretending that it’s past tense.” It’s not a question, not really. PJ quirks an eyebrow, but it’s more an actual statement of fact.
“I’m not pretending anything,” Phil says.
PJ pats the top of the academic diary. “What do these mean? These notes?”
“It’s a dream diary.” Phil is still, somewhere, trying to wake himself up. If he goes to sleep here, will he wake up there? You said you’d wait, he chides barista Phil (who smashes cups and burns milk), you said that you’d wait for him but he said he wouldn’t wait for you. You need to wake up. Or go back to sleep.
PJ looks like he was about to tease him but has thought better of it, expression still caught between serious and joking. “That’s, um, interesting? I guess. My mum keeps one of those. She doesn’t have as many notes as you though.”
Phil looks at the diary, every month is covered, extra post-its and pieces of note paper are stuffed amongst the pages. He’s had to put an elastic band around it just to keep everything closed. All messages or instructions to himself that he only half understands. You have to be together in all of them.
“Have a lot of dreams do you?” PJ says. His voice matches his frown, unsure whether this is something to be light about.
“You could say that.”
“Maybe it’s a sign that you have too much on your mind.” PJ’s eyes track to the pile of pamphlets, Dan’s phone number on the inside cover of every single one. Phil has tried very hard not to picture Dan in his little room in halls (single bed, tiny desk, one lone bookshelf), dutifully writing his phone number in each leaflet. call me call me call me.
“My mind is fine,” Phil says. “It’s completely serene.”
“Of course,” PJ replies. “That’s why I found you sat in a puddle of coffee outside your office two days ago.”
“That was two days ago?”
PJ leans over and touches the back of his hand to Phil’s forehead. “Phil, I know it’s been a tough few months-”
“- and I’ve been kinda hard on you, I know that, but it’s only because I care. You’re my friend and I know this whole thing with Dan, and you liking him, and-”
“I love him, Peej, it’s not just-”
“- that hasn’t really been- Wait.” PJ blinks at him. “You never said it was, like, actual love, you said that you liked him, you just said that it was-”
“I love him,” Phil says, miserably. “I loved him from the first second that he stepped into my office. I love him everywhere.”
PJ, confused, says, “Everywhere?” and then, “And it’s reciprocated. He replied to my email, he came to the office, did something happen, two days ago? Did you spill your coffee in a fit of passion or something?”
“You’re not being fair.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” PJ says. “I’ve tried to be patient about this whole mess, Phil, I really have, but you can’t carry on this way.”
“I know I can’t,” Phil replies, resolutely, decision already made. They have to be together in all of them. That would stop the dreams. That would make everything right. “I know.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
Phil doesn’t say anything. He has a whole list of the quietest bars in Manchester; small, private little places that are saved the notes section of his phone but were, once, handwritten and then whispered aloud over Skype, mumbled into the ear of a Dan with longer hair and a more wide eyed gaze. We can go to all of these places, no one will see us, it’s just you and me, I researched, the other Dan had laughed giddily and saying you and your research.
PJ says, “Phil, no.”
“I don’t see what else-”
“No,” says PJ. “No, no, no. This is stupid, this is a huge risk that you’re taking for someone you met three months ago.”
“It doesn’t feel like three months ago, PJ. It doesn’t feel like that at all.”
“He’s nineteen years old,” PJ says. “It’s just all a whole big drama to him, he’s got nothing to lose. You remember what you were like at that age?”
Phil, at nineteen, had been overly nervous and overly anxious, loving and loved by no one in particular. He wouldn’t have been brave enough to walk up to someone in front of their office and hold out his heart, clutched between his two hands, and say I want to see you. Can I see you. He wouldn’t have expected anyone to do that for him, has never inspired that strength of feeling in anyone before.
“Is it flattering?” PJ suggests, trying to gentle his tone. “All of this? Because I would understand if it was, Phil, I really would, we’ve all been there.”
“He said that he’s the best version of himself around me.”
“Well,” says PJ. “Isn’t that just a very dramatic and nineteen-year-old thing to say.”
Phil repeats, “You’re not being fair.”
PJ says, “Neither are you,” and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You love him. You actually love him. You don’t even know him, you know nothing about him.”
“I do. I do know him.”
“If we keep talking about this then I’m going to say something I regret.” PJ, very dramatically, turns on his heel and leaves the room.
This is me, Phil texts Dan. calling you.
Dan replies instantly. Phil has only just pressed send when this is me, answering you pops up. i’m glad i’m glad you’re texting me i was hoping you would
Phil is suddenly frozen, staring at his phone, because he shouldn’t be, he shouldn’t be texting, or maybe he should.
Dan must sense something in the hesitation because he says can i see you whenever you want wherever you want
Phil says I want and then, for some reason, To see you in a separate message. I know somewhere, I have a whole list of somewheres.
you and your research
(Phil can hear Dan’s voice, scratchy and far away through a laptop screen, black studs in both his ears, blinking his fringe out of his eyes).
where tell me where
Phil had written the bars in order, an order that he had already known. The best one, the one at the top of the list, is a small place above a cake shop. You had to walk up two flights of stairs to get to it and Dan said that was probably a good thing because none of their fans would think that they would go there, not to somewhere that you had to complete actual exercise to get into. Fans, why do they have fans. He texts the name of it to Dan.
Dan says when
tonight can it be tonight
Tonight is too soon and also not soon enough. Phil taps at his phone screen. He’s almost not ready for it to be tonight, the anticipation coupled with the suddenness of this actually happening makes his heart flutter right into his throat.
He says Tomorrow. Can we make it tomorrow?
i can’t wait any longer than that but okay tomorrow
He tests something out as he attempts to go to sleep, tries to think of coffee, all the things he remembers from the coffee shop. Caramel macchiato. Dan with no dimples. The tip jar filled with blue marbles. Dan with straight hair. A cup with his name on it. Dan, Dan, Dan.
--2. epistolary romance--
His mug is still on Dan’s balcony. It’s moved slightly, back to face him so he can see the I just want to see you too. Dan must have come out, seen it and then turned it towards Phil rather than writing a new note himself. But, it’s not true. He doesn’t want to see Phil, and there’s never been any real indication that he would change his mind on that front. Phil stares at it for a second and then leans over to add another, one which says this is me calling you.
Dorothy, in a complete disregard for the communication Phil prefers, has phoned him. He has two missed calls and the little red dot of an answerphone message. He would, probably, have let it go to answerphone anyway. He doesn’t do telephone conversations. The red dot seems to judge him. Phil sighs.
She’d said the text was a message. Phil plays the terrible trailer again and watches the spinning yellow letters. A missing girl! A house out of time! Phil, you’re in the wrong place! What will happen when they go back to……. The House on Zils Street?
Phil blinks and plays it again. The messages spin back: A missing girl! A house out of time! What will happen when they go back to……. The House on Zils Street? Just the three, had there been four before?
Dorothy’s answerphone message sounds like she’s singing to him. Her voice is soft and lilting, like there should be a guitar playing under it. She says, “We didn’t go to school together. I’ve seen you somewhere else, where you have red hair, but I think your memory of these things is getting better now, isn’t it? At least, I hope it is. It’s very difficult to change things if you don’t remember, or, it’s difficult to get what you want. What you should have. You can’t remove the text. Read it again, you’ll understand why. Watch it again, you’ll understand. You should be understanding by now. Please return my call.”
Phil says, “I don’t understand,” to his phone asking if he wants to listen to the message again. “Stop telling me that I should.”
The patio doors outside open, then there’s the sound of china being placed neatly onto the concrete floor. It’s a sound Phil has memorised, of late, along with the exact tune of several post-it notes fluttering in the breeze. He waits. There’s the chime of at least five mugs being placed around Dan’s balcony and the chime of Dan himself saying, “I’m sorry for not replying straight away.”
Phil has to clasp the arm of the sofa to stop himself from getting up. “That’s okay. I left it longer last time, after the name one.”
“Here’s the thing.” Dan sounds like he’s leaning right across his balcony. If Phil got up and ran then he’d have no time to stand up and get back into his flat before Phil saw him. “I already knew your name.”
Phil pulls at a missed stitch in the sofa fabric. “You said. You heard me on the phone.”
“No. I knew it before that.”
“That’s not possible,” Phil says. “We don’t know each other. We’ve never met in person.”
“Do you feel like we have though? Somewhere?”
Phil, honestly, says, “Yes,” and then, “Can I come out there? You don’t have to speak to me, I just want-”
Dan sounds pained. “No. And do you mean that or are you just saying that to make me sound less weird? Because, I’m not, I mean, I am weird but I’m not lying. I knew your name before I heard you say it. And that note, you said I’d sent it to you before, but-”
“It won’t make sense,” Phil says. “If I try and explain it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“You could try.”
“Can I come out there?” Phil repeats. “Please? Can I?”
Dan doesn’t say anything. There’s the soft sound of footsteps and then the patio doors closing. Phil is on his feet before he even realises, out onto the balcony to look over into Dan’s, which is full of (as he expected) five mugs.
The mugs are blue: azure to grey to zaffre to aquamarine to periwinkle. They each have an individual post-it.
i don’t remember writing it but i also do remember writing it. does that make sense? it doesn’t.
how long have you lived here, next door to me? it can’t have been very long because i can’t see how i wouldn’t have been aware of you before now.
i don’t know how i went through my day-to-day life without being aware of you.
i won’t say any of this out loud so don’t try and make me.
i know you. i saw you and i knew you. we should make a video about this.
The last sentence is so out-of-place that Phil says, “A video? You want me to edit a video? About what?” but Dan, inside, is silent as promised, not saying any of this out loud.
Phil emails Dorothy (mainly to avoid having to speak on the phone) and only pays attention to that, “you can’t remove the text,” part of her message. Let’s meet! We can discuss more then! It’s easier than doing this via email! Phil, in emails, is incredibly cheerful and with a distinct overuse of exclamation marks (it could, potentially, also be why he hates speaking to people on the phone. It’s harder to fake cheeriness then).
Dorothy’s reply is just the word YES in, of course, yellow capitals.
Phil sighs and sends the location of his nearest Starbucks. Tomorrow! At four!
It seems, when he goes to sleep, to be very important to try and imagine coffee, broken cups and the smell of burnt milk mixed with caramel syrup.
--4. slow show--
“Do you even go home anymore?” PJ says, later, when he comes back to replace the coffee (of course the coffee was from PJ, Phil should have known. He feels guilty again, for the numerous times he has wished that PJ could just get transferred to another reserve, or suddenly want to go travelling for months. That PJ would just leave and then Dan would be by himself). “Or do you just sleep here now?”
Phil, honestly, isn’t entirely sure. “I don’t sleep here exclusively. I just fall asleep here a lot. I think.”
PJ sits down. He’s carrying his own polystyrene cup and, when Phil notices, says, “We never arranged coffee. So I brought the coffee to you.”
Phil says, “Oh. Okay.”
PJ, very politely, like they’re at a job interview, says, “So, how have things been?”
Phil, equally politely, says, “Fine,” and then, because he’s obviously the type of person who likes to add cracks and splinters to his own heart, adds, “How was your anniversary? The boat trip and the surprise reservations?”
PJ gives him a considering look. “That’s the first time that you’ve ever-”
“How was it?”
PJ sighs. “I don’t know. We haven’t spoken about this, you know, since me and Dan got together, you seemed to always have been busy and- He seems distracted sometimes. That’s all. Well, not sometimes, a lot of the time, but it’s fine. It’s going good. Things are good.”
“Dan seems distracted?”
“Yeah,” PJ says. “He does. But he’s like that, you know. You never seem to have one hundred percent of his attention.”
Phil says, “You don’t?” but it sounds too much like a question, coming from someone who always has one hundred percent of Dan’s attention and is only recently aware of this fact. He softens it. “You don’t.”
“It’s fine,” PJ replies. “His mind’s constantly on the move, he’s always thinking about other things. I love that about him, it’s the one of the things that I love most about him, I guess.”
Phil crushes the cup in his hand, right into a crumpled damp mess that makes PJ laugh and exclaim hey, watch out! Phil tries to say something but the words come out tangled together and sounding like, “You love him?” which is exactly what he wanted to say.
PJ says, “Of course. We just- we’ve never really talked about it, have we? You’ve been so busy.” He looks at the remains of the cup, clenched in Phil’s fist. “Did you burn your hand?”
Phil has. The leftover coffee has spilt and is steadily turning his hand red, a dull throbbing pain that seems to be travelling up his arm. He says, “No, it’s fine. You love him.”
PJ takes a very neat sip from his coffee. “That’s not brand new information Phil. It’s always been the case.”
“Always.” That can’t be possible, Phil thinks. He’s the one who loves Dan, has always loved Dan, it’s him. It’s not fair to just appear and after three months say it’s always been the case when it hasn’t been. He, unfairly, adds, “You’ve said that about a few people, though, in the past.”
PJ either misses Phil’s tone or just takes it in good grace. “True. But this is different. You should spend more time with me, with us, together. You’ll see.”
Phil can imagine nothing worse than sitting at a table across from Dan and PJ, Dan-and-PJ as a pair, watching them, probably taking delight in getting Dan’s attention when PJ, apparently, cannot. Being around Dan-and-PJ doesn’t bring out Phil’s best qualities, it makes him jealous, and with jealousy comes pettiness and neediness and all sorts of other things that don’t usually exist in his personality. Phil says, “Maybe.”
PJ must be deliberately ignoring the tone of his voice at this point because he just exclaims, “Awesome!” and, “Hey, that reminds me, a friend of mine recently moved here, he’s helping out at the park across town, and he doesn’t know many people and he’s single, and I thought that-”
“I’m not really in the mood for-”
“I’m gonna insist,” PJ says. “You can’t just come to work and do nothing else. And also sleep in work most of the time. He’s a nice guy! I’ll arrange it, we can double-date, so it won’t be so stressful. You know, you and him and me and Dan, it’ll be great.”
Phil isn’t sure, at this point, if it’s possibly to keep continually breaking your own heart. His has been stamped on and pulled apart and cracked so many times by now that it must just be a sad little pile of powder, all the pieces too small to reform. He grinds it under his foot one more time and says, “Maybe.”
“I’ll get it set up!” PJ replies and stands. “It was nice to actually sit and talk with you, Phil. We don’t do this anymore.”
When he leaves Phil goes to the little sink in the corner of the office, Thor held over his shoulder, and runs his aching hand under the cold water tap for at least twenty minutes, until every last one of his fingers are numb.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil says, “I’m sorry.”
Dan, very politely, says, “That’s fine.”
“I fell asleep.”
Dan clicks his tongue against his teeth. “Uh-huh.”
“And then I couldn’t get back.”
Dan says, “You couldn’t get back from being asleep?”
“No,” Phil says. “But I wanted to.”
Dan looks everywhere except Phil’s face; the tip jar, the counter, the display pastries, and Phil’s hands, which are not making his caramel macchiato. “I did say, I mean, I told you that I wouldn't wait if you weren’t here.”
“That’s okay. It’s fine that you didn’t wait, I didn’t-”
“No,” Dan says. “I did wait. That’s the thing. I waited until 5. I waited an hour.”
“I was asleep,” Phil tells him.
“And you couldn’t get back,” Dan repeats.
“I didn’t think you’d wait.”
“Neither did I. But it seemed important that I should, so-”
“Come back today,” Phil says. “At four. Come back, I’ll be here, I promise.”
Dan finally looks at Phil’s face. “You’ll be here.”
“At four. I’ll be here. I’ll be right here.”
Dan leans forward, like he’s about to whisper a secret into Phil’s ear, like he would be in Phil’s lap if there wasn’t a counter between them. “I was being serious. I didn’t think I would wait, but then I couldn’t not. Does that make sense? It was like I couldn’t leave here without seeing you and then when I did have to leave here without seeing you it hurt, it physically hurt. How can that be? I don’t even know you.”
“You could,” Phil says, as though he’s offering up something important.
“But I feel like I do. That’s the thing. I feel like I-”
PJ says, “Phil?” with a hint of reproach in his voice. There is a queue behind Dan and also beside him; PJ and Chris both behind the counter with Phil. Everyone is looking at him expectantly, no one more expectantly than Dan.
Phil says, “Caramel macchiato?”
Dan says, “I didn’t even want one. I’ll be back at four.”
--1. absent treatment--
“I need to go out for lunch,” Phil says.
“Great!” PJ stands up. “Where should we go?”
Phil hesitates. PJ is not coping well with (what he’s calling) The Whole Odd Dream Thing. He had fluttered around Phil in the office, in their rooms, when they’re outside, inside, at work, at home. He didn’t like what Louise had said, he didn’t like the thought of Phil seeing Dan, he didn’t, in all honesty, like any aspect of the entire thing. “I thought I might go by myself. Maybe take a walk.”
PJ narrows his eyes. “Why?”
“Just for a walk,” Phil says. “That’s all. To clear my head. You know, with everything that Louise said.”
It’s the right thing to say. PJ’s face clears. “Of course. I know it was a lot to take in.”
It had been. Phil hadn’t realised quite how much until he got back to their rooms and looked at PJ, lounging across their reclaimed blue armchair, saying you’re back! What kind of lavender tea remedies did Louise give you? and then Phil? and then, with more urgency, Phil? It had been hard to explain, in between trying to moderate his breathing, but it (of course) came down to three things. One of them is the right one. He has to be with Dan in all of them. He needs to see if he can control himself, in the dreams, he needs to see if - “This is madness,” PJ had said. “This is absolute madness. This one is the right one, we live here. She shouldn’t have told you that. She’s worried you for no reason.” And Phil had said, “No, it’s for him, he’s the reason.”
“Take a walk,” PJ continues. “Around the park, maybe,. Take as long as you like, I can deal with the appointments for this afternoon.” They only have one appointment. The Howards, again. It’s getting louder (or better), judging by the telegram they’d had this morning. “It seems to be getting worse, don’t you think, these jobs?”
“They seem to be getting real,” Phil replies. “That’s what you mean.”
PJ, weakly, says, “It’s faulty pipes.”
“Maybe it was at the start, but I’m not sure if it is now.”
PJ twirls the Howards’ telegram around and around in his hands. “This one will be the right one, Phil. You know that. You’re here. He’s here. I’m here. This is it. You just need to sort the others out. If you want to, that is.”
Phil watches the telegram, turning and turning. “Why wouldn’t I want to?”
“Because, I guess, sorting it out means that you can’t go back there. Louise said stop them, didn’t she. Stopping them means you wouldn’t dream them anymore.”
Phil has considered this, at length, wondering if he’s ready for the loss of all the other Dans. Curly haired, in loose fitting sweaters. Nineteen years old with his heart on his sleeve. The other side of a balcony, of a coffee shop counter. Soft eyed in a white coat. It wouldn’t be a loss to all of the other versions of himself, pining and wishing in five different ways, but for him, here, it would be. He worries that maybe at some point in the future he’ll wake up and long for a different Dan, a Dan who wears oversized jumpers the colour of potato sacks and shrieks in Phil’s ear as they try and diffuse a computerised bomb. That Dan plays on Phil’s heart the most.
“I can’t carry on just doing this,” Phil tells him. “It can’t just keep going indefinitely, can it? I never sleep, I’m always tired, I’m always sad, I’m-”
“You were sad a lot of the time before this,” PJ points out, gently. “Also, I can see him, sitting down there. That is him, right? I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t think that-”
“He’s the real one too,” PJ says. “So, you shouldn’t be up here with me when you could be down there with him.”
Phil, still watching the telegram, back and forth spinning around PJ’s fingers, says, “Mrs. Howard said oh no not you too, to me, when we were in their house. She said everyone’s in the wrong place.”
PJ stops turning the telegram. He says, “Mrs. Howard isn’t exactly in her right frame of mind, Phil,” very kindly. “She thinks her lost daughter is running around her house.”
“She could be.”
PJ puts his hand firmly on Phil’s shoulder. “I’ll go to the Howards. You go with Daniel Howell and just try and clear your head. Don’t think about the dreams, just let it be what it is.”
Phil thinks right, I can do that, that’s easy, but he hasn’t had a moment free of thinking about the dreams for months, and walking out of the office and across the street to Dan, who stands as soon as he sees Phil and smiles so brightly that Phil, for a moment, thinks this can’t be the real one, how could anyone in reality look that happy to see him, it’s a dream, it’s the most perfect, wonderful-
“Hello,” Dan says, dusting down the sides of his coat. “I hope you don’t mind me just coming and sitting outside. I didn’t realise how odd it would look until I was here, and then I’d already committed to it, so I just sat here and hoped you would see me.”
“I did,” Phil tells him. “I did see you.” Dan smiles, delighted. “And thank you for the cake. I hope you didn’t get into trouble for taking it.”
“I cut a slice from the back.” Dan shrugs. “They probably never noticed.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“You wanted me to,” Dan says. “So I did.” He flushes suddenly, like he’s said too much, been far too honest. “I wanted- I came back here just to show you the diary. I’m remembering more, I think. Still not much, but a little.”
“You could have made an appointment if it was just to show me the diary.”
Dan ducks his head. “It’s not just to show you the diary. Do you want to-”
Phil says, “Yes.”
“Take a walk? Like we did last time? I have to get back for a wedding in an hour or so, but we could still sit somewhere for a while.”
It’s still cold, Phil is wearing a scarf and gloves that PJ’s mother had knitted for him, but Dan only has his cheap coat. He’s curled his fingers up into the sleeves and there are red patches on his cheeks and nose. Phil says, “Or we could go to a coffee house? If you’re cold.” His breath mists into the air. Dan nods.
They walk to Somers Town, which is the closest coffee house and also a huge mistake. It’s too big, there are too many people inside it. Phil grabs the cuff of Dan’s coat between two fingers, as though he’ll float away if he steps too far and needs to be anchored down to earth.
Dan looks down, flushes (possibly from the cold, possibly not), and says, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“We could go somewhere else.”
“There’s a free table.” Dan points. “Right there by the window.” They’re stood in the doorway, letting all the cold air in. The customers on the tables closest to the door are giving them irritated looks. “I always sit by the window, I find it calming. It’s a good place to write.”
Phil is aware that, as he’s speaking, Dan is gently pulling them forward. Phil says, “To write your articles?”
“No,” Dan says. “Music, mostly. I wanted to be a pianist, I think I told you.”
Phil says, “Of course you did.”
“Of course I told you or of course I wanted to be a pianist?”
“Both.” They reach the table. Dan slides into one side of the booth and Phil, still clinging to his coat, sits down after him. Dan blinks. They’re both far too tall to be sat on the same side but Phil doesn’t want to move, couldn’t move if he tried. His knee is touching Dan’s, the entire length of their arms are pressed together.
Dan says, “You’re still holding onto my coat.”
Phil continues to do so. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.”
“It’s fine,” Dan says. “I don’t mind but I need to get the notebook.” Phil releases his sleeve. Dan sighs.
When the waitress comes over Phil orders a caramel macchiato before he’s even realised what he’s said. She stares at him, pencil hovering over her notepad, mouth half open to say something. He says, “No, just- I meant. I- I’ll just have a black coffee.”
Dan orders the same and, watching the waitress weave her way back through the tables, adds, “I didn’t even think that was strange.”
“You ordering a caramel mac-whatever it was. I nearly said, yes, I’ll have the same. Like it’s a completely normal drink that I have all the time, like it’s a drink that actually exists and it’s my regular order somewhere.” Dan pulls the peacock blue notebook from his coat. “They’re getting clearer, like I said.”
Dan blushes again. Phil is starting to memorise it, the gradual build of pink that spreads right across Dan’s cheekbones. “Since I met you.”
Phil says, “Oh,” and they sit in a sudden silence, the type of silence that you could reach up and touch, like he and Dan are both caught in a bubble where it’s just them. The type of silence that can only be shattered by a waitress clattering two overly full cups of coffee onto the table.
Dan jumps. “Oh, right, the notebook. It’s not much, but in one of them, I remembered there was a piano, a white piano, and it’s mine, but I can remember the music now. And I think it’s original music, it’s nothing that I recognise, and it’s so sad, but it’s beautiful and I hate it, for some reason. While I’m playing, I’m just really sort of angry with myself. As though it’s not very good, even though it is, and there’s no one there with me but I keep thinking that I’m trying to impress someone but there isn’t anyone. Not that I can see. And I’m in a flat, I think, probably my flat, and there aren’t any mirrors.”
Phil, as transfixed as if he’s dreaming himself, staring at the curve of Dan’s mouth as he speaks, says, “No mirrors?”
“None. I don’t even know why I noticed it.”
“Do you remember any of the other ones?”
“Just a few extra things. You asked me, last time, if there was someone I liked there, in the dreams.”
“I think there definitely is, but it’s almost like I can’t find them. Or we keep missing each other. It feels like I’m always entering rooms that they’ve just left, you know?”
Phil says, “Meet me back here tomorrow.”
Dan, thrown off the flow of the conversation, says, “Sorry?”
“Meet me here, tomorrow, at eight.”
Dan says, “Yes,” and, “For coffee?”
“No, just to meet me, and then to-”
“Take you home with me?” Dan guesses. The blush dusting his cheeks goes a few shades darker. Phil wants to touch his hand to it.
“Take me home with you,” Phil agrees.
“I can do that.” Dan half-whispers. “For the case?”
“No. Well, yes and no. I have to go back there, to Zils Street, I think it’s important somehow. And, also, I want.” Phil stops, ends the sentence right there. I want.
Dan nods like he’s heard all the unspoken words. He says, “We can do that,” with no real explanation of what exactly it is that they can do. “Are you going to tell me what happened there last time?”
Phil touches the cover of the notebook. “Is the piano dream your favourite?”
Dan says, “Yes and no. It has its bad points, I think. I’m very sad there. I feel the most alone in that one, even though I have a piano, and that should make me happy. There’s one of them where I’m really happy but I can never remember which one that is.”
Phil has an idea as to which one that could be. “I’m glad they’re not all sad.”
Dan smiles at him. “They’re not. They’re really not.”
Phil walks him to the church for the wedding. It’s not as grand an affair as last time, the groom is the only person outside when they get there, smoking a cigarette and bouncing nervously from one foot to the other. When he sees Dan he says, “Mr Howell!” and starts a steady stream of what happens it she doesn’t show up, because I feel like she might not show up, we had an argument, yesterday, about how much this whole thing is costing, but we’ve been waiting such a long time you see, and Dan squeezes his arm at the elbow and says, “It’s going to be fine. Go back inside.”
The groom eventually does. Dan turns back to Phil. “It’s all very dramatic. They’ve only been together three months, how is that quantify as waiting such a long time?”
Phil says, “It can feel that way, I suppose. Even if you only met a week ago.”
The blush returns. “That’s very poetic of you. You should be the one covering weddings, not me.”
Phil is sure that he’s blushing too. “Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Dan replies.
The bridal procession passes Phil on his walk back to the office, an explosion of tulle and lace and flowers (powdery blue forget-me-nots). Phil waves and the bride gives a regal twist of her wrist in return.
--6. dan howell--
Phil has five rainbows on his spoon. They all have more blue than usual. “The notebook?”
“We’re not- That’s not.” Phil stops, starts again. “We’re not turning that into a breakfast tradition, Dan. I’m not going to sit here every morning and update you on my alternate realities.”
“That’s what we’re calling them now?”
Phil blinks down at his spoonful of rainbows. “What did I say?”
“You said alternate realities.” Dan tilts his head to one side, considering. “Is that what you think they are?”
“No, it was a weird thing to say and I don’t know why I said it.”
He doesn’t want to bring the notebook out because he’d written, on a middle page, not related to anything else, we need to be together in all of them, as if they’re not, as if this one, this right one, has something wrong with it, something lacking, where they’re not truly together. Phil was confused by it but it’s the type of thing that would send Dan off on a spiral, face down on the carpet while he tried to work out what could be wrong here. Dan is, most of the time, waiting for something to go wrong or to already be wrong and then reveal itself.
“Are they, like, lucid dreams?” Dan asks. “I used to be able to do that.”
“I think they’re getting that way.”
“Then you should totally bang cute student me.”
Phil laughs. “Should I.”
“You owe it to cute lecturer you. And then you can tell me about it.”
“I don’t think it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story, Dan. And it’s not like sitting back and watching, it’s actually me.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that you’ve got all of these things going on without me.”
“But, you’re there,” Phil points out. “You’re always there.”
Dan makes a hmmm noise, lightly, and then, “You should look it up.” Phil must raise an eyebrow because Dan instantly starts to protest. “No, I mean, your family with your tea leaves and your tarot cards and everything, there must be dream interpretation in there somewhere. You should phone your mum.”
Phil’s not sure that’s a great idea, she worries at the best of times, trying to explain this would probably result in her coming to London and moving in with them. He says, “I can read tarot cards though, remember?”
Dan dutifully recites, “Death. The ending of a cycle of events. Cheerful.”
“That was a positive card!”
“Right. But I really think you should ask. And you should bring your notebook to breakfast.”
“Why would you want to-”
“Because it’s you, and then five other versions of you. I want to hear about all of them.” Dan wrinkles his nose, like he always does when he’s accidentally said something that sounds too sincere. “But, like, mostly the student/teacher one. Or something.”
Phil, who has never been able to say no to Dan in any version, says, “Okay.”
--5. the dream synopsis--
Dan is already stood there, on the sloping stairs, the tips of his curls brushing the ceiling rafters. Whatever oxygen was left in Phil’s lungs after the walk up immediately disappears. He says, “You’re early,” with the last gasps that he has.
Dan says, “Early? I was beyond early. I’ve been here for two hours.”
Phil is still a few steps down from Dan. He has to lean back to look up at him. “Waiting for me?”
“Waiting for you. I wanted to make sure I had the right place, and then I wanted to make sure that we could get a quiet table, and I’ve found one, right in the corner behind a pillar, no one will see us, and then I wanted to sort my hair out, and then I wanted to make sure that I was stood here, right here, for when you came up the stairs. I wanted you to know I was here. And then I just wanted you. Here.”
“I’m here.” Phil casts an awkward hand over his chest, ends up just circling around his heart. “I’m here.”
Dan smiles. “You are.”
Dan has stolen the quietest table which, as promised, is in the corner behind a pillar. Dan has scattered all of his belongings across it, to make sure it’s reserved. Phil picks up a jacket (black and expensive looking) from the back of his chair and sits down with it still on his lap, tangled around his hands.
There are already two drinks; a glass of something dark and unidentifiable, and something a bright turquoise blue with a slice of pineapple in the top. Dan slides that one over to Phil and says, “I’m glad you came. I didn’t think that you were going to.”
Phil thinks it’s probably time for honesty, now that they’re actually here, knees touching under a tiny table in the corner of a tiny bar. “I couldn’t stay away.”
Dan smiles with one side of his mouth. “But you said that you should have taken me off your rota the moment I walked in.”
“Because I knew what was going to happen.”
“It had already happened,” Dan says. “It had happened the moment I saw you, at your stall, when you were at the fresher’s fair. And I thought, I know him, I’ve seen him before, even though I know that I haven’t. But when I saw you it was like I was remembering you.”
Phil can’t say anything to that. Being around Dan makes most of his words stop, in the same way that it seems to steal all his air.
“I’m sorry.” Dan picks up his drink. His hands, Phil notices, are shaking. “I’m being extra. I knew I would be. I mean, I am, with most things but especially with you.”
Phil says, “That’s okay.”
“I did try not to be.”
“Maybe for about five seconds, at the start.” Dan smiles, both dimples. “I stood and watched you, on your stall, which is making me sound weird again, I know, but-”
“You didn’t come over.” Phil points out. “I would have said-”
“I was trying to work out where I knew you from,” Dan interrupts. “I still can’t remember, but everything about you, it’s like I’d forgotten it and it’s coming back, slowly. I knew what bar you’d want to come to, I knew what drink to get you.”
Phil looks down at said drink. The pineapple wedge has fallen in. The straw is a deep indigo. He says, “Dan, I-”
“It’s like I’d been looking for you and there you were.” Dan huffs a laugh. “And then I was sort of pleased that you were the careers counsellor because I knew that I could see you, every week, but then I was like, fuck, he’s the careers counsellor and I have to pretend to talk about my goals and-”
“We never talked about your goals,” Phil says. “Not once.”
“Well, no.” Dan looks up, flicks his fringe from his eyes. “Because my goal was you.” Phil sighs. Dan says, “Sorry, that was terrible, I was aiming for smooth.”
“No,” Phil says, still caught in the sigh. “It’s just- I still am your careers counsellor.”
“I could quit uni. No, seriously, I never wanted to do Law anyway, I actually wanted to do-”
“Music,” Phil supplies. “The piano.”
Dan blinks. “I know I’ve never told you that.”
“No. Not here you haven’t.”
Dan repeats. “I could quit. I don’t want you to lose your job or anything. That is, if you want to- with me- if you even. You haven’t really-”
“I want to,” Phil says. “I- You have no idea.”
“But you kept sending me away.”
“I never wanted to. Not really.”
“I’ll quit,” Dan repeats, third time a charm. “I’ll do it.”
“Dan, no. You’ll regret that. You’re only nineteen, and it’s all drama and amazing but don’t quit this for me, I’m really not much of anything. What if two months later you meet someone else, or you-”
“I won’t.” Dan looks amazed at the mere thought that there are other people in the world who aren’t Phil. “That’s not possible.”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Dan says, then wrinkles his nose. “That sounds creepy, I know it does, but I can’t explain. I saw you and I was like, I have to make an appointment, I have to make all the appointments, and keep going back there even when he sends me away. When you said the thing about the stars it was almost like I’d heard you say it before. I’ve never- I know I’m nineteen, and I am dramatic, but, just, listen.”
Phil, helplessly, says, “I am.” He can’t do anything else. He’s never wanted to kiss someone more, he’s never wanted to take someone home more, he’s never, in his life, in all his lives, wanted someone to the point that he can’t breathe. He downs his drink and says, “Do you want-”
Dan says, “Yes,” immediately.
“Want another drink? Yes. Want to go somewhere else? Yes. Want to come home with you? Yes. Want you? Yes. Yes to whatever.” Dan blushes. Phil watches it travel, from jawline to cheek.
“Do you want to come home with me?”
Dan, on an exhale, says, “Yes.”
The thought doesn’t hit Phil until later, when they’re halfway up the stairs to his flat. That this could be it. The fleeting sentence in each month of his academic diary. You have to be together in all of them for them to stop. Phil looks at Dan, two steps behind him, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Dan’s hands have been shaking all night and Phil had wanted to clutch them in his but he hadn’t, hasn’t touched Dan, the closest he’s come was holding the leather jacket on his lap (it had smelt, somehow, of caramel and coffee).
Phil stops at the top of the stairs and looks back down. Dan hovers beneath him, his hair haloed by the stairwell light, chewing his bottom lip and looking at Phil in a way that makes Phil doubt if anyone has ever really looked at him before. If they stop, if they’re together in all of them and it stops, does this stop? This Dan?
Dan notices the hesitation. “Don’t have a crisis. That’s meant to be my job. I’m the dramatic teenager here.”
Phil says, slowly, “I want to see you again.”
“You’re seeing me right now.”
“This is too quick. I need time to think about it.”
Dan takes one step. “Think about what? Us? We’re the simple part.”
“Are we really?”
“I think we are.” Dan regards Phil, for a second, like Phil is the student here. “You need time to think?”
“About everything, about the repercussions of- If I take you through this door, into my flat, what’s going to happen.”
Dan smiles, catches his bottom lip in his teeth. “I think we both know what would happen.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense.”
“No, no, I get it, repercussions for your job and stuff.”
“Yes,” Phil says, but also no. Repercussions for you, he wants to tell Dan. And me. If we’re together here what happens. He can picture the notes to himself, from himself, don’t let him go, you love him, that might be it, you might not be able to see him again.
Dan says, “What are you thinking about?”
“This was,” Phil says, “Almost too much for me, I think.”
Dan’s expression, screwed up with confusion, softens. “Oh. I get that.”
“I want to see you again,” Phil reiterates.
“You will. You can. But, for now-” Dan takes the second step, so they’re on eye level. “I’m gonna go. If that’s what you want.”
“Hey,” Phil says, “That’s not fair, you know it’s- It’s hard to explain.”
“I like things that are hard to explain, anything else is boring.” Dan covers Phil’s mouth with his own, too deliberately lacking in finesse to be called a kiss but it still makes Phil hold his hands behind his back, in case he reaches out. “I’ll text you.” Phil is sure that he tries to say okay but no air comes out.
Dan takes the stairs down two at time, turns at the bottom to look back at Phil and say, “And I mean, I’ll text you, it’ll be non-stop.”
“I was sort of hoping it would be.”
Dan grins, gorgeous and soft, waves in a really awkward manner (half wave, half salute), and is gone.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil says, “I’m sorry.”
Dan flicks his too-straight fringe from his eyes. “It’s fine. Could you not get back again?” His voice is very polite, like he’s asking Phil about the weather, or the exact blend of the coffee beans that they use.
“Did you wait?”
Dan laughs. It’s a harsh sound, obviously directed at himself. Phil hasn’t even started making the coffee. “I thought that one hour wasn’t enough, last time, so I waited for two hours. Two.”
“I fell asleep and I tried to get here, but-”
“Where do you sleep? In the staffroom? I’ll come in and wake you up. Or I would come in and wake you up, if I was going to wait again.”
Phil says, “You’re not going to?”
“I can take a hint,” Dan says. “I can pick up on signals. You don’t have to protect my feelings or anything.”
Phil can hear how desperate his voice sounds. “No, no, it’s not that at all, I really am- It sounds weird, I know, but I really am asleep. And when I’m asleep I basically- I’m somewhere else and it’s really hard for me to-”
Dan, slowly, supplies, “Wake up?”
“Yes. That’s exactly it.”
“Do you want me to come and wake you up then, next time?” Dan goes from earnest to suddenly remembering that he’s not bothered, like he can’t keep track of trying to be aloof and uninterested. “If there was going to be a next time, that is.”
“There’s not?” Phil attempts to joke. “What happened to the physical ache of not being around me?”
“Still there. Probably not going to go away.” Dan laughs, but it’s a small release of breath as he taps the counter. “I can’t- I can’t not be honest with you. And I’m normally just-” he draws a hand over his face, miming the closing of a blind. “Not that honest.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“I’m training to be a lawyer. I’m supposed to make a career out of it.” Dan drums his fingers across the counter, hitting invisible piano keys. “I’ll come and wake you up. Next time. If I can.”
“Okay.” Phil tries to swallow down the joy releasing itself from his heart. “But- like, don’t scare me awake, that makes it worse. Just-”
Dan leans over, balls his right hand into a fist and touches it, very gently, to Phil’s temple. “Phil, wake up.”
“That’s good,” Phil says. “Exactly like that.”
--1. absent treatment--
PJ, updating the Howards’ file with drawings and new telegrams and a letter from Mr Howard that had been read only once, looks up at him. “Are you expecting to not be home? Or are you hoping to not be home?” Phil pushes a marble across his desk. PJ nods. “Are you going to tell him? That he’s in your dreams?”
Phil pushes the marble right into another marble. It makes a clack noise that’s louder than he was expecting. “I haven’t decided.”
“Maybe if you tell him it’ll help him remember you being in his.” PJ watches the marbles bounce around Phil’s desk and says, “You know, you and your blue, it reminds me, have you ever noticed that the Howards’ house is green? Like, completely green? They give you those bright lime teacups and the little girl’s room is like a peppermint. I’d never really noticed until I was there yesterday but, there it was. Green, everywhere.”
Phil says, “Maybe they just-”
“And Ms. Clark, remember? All that yellow.”
Phil frowns. “PJ.”
“Where’s my signature colour, huh?” PJ suddenly jumps off his desk, as much his old self as if he’s just woken up from a dream and says, “Stay out as long as you want, enjoy yourself, have a good time. I won’t wait up.” He will. PJ turns into a worried grandmother when Phil’s out. He’ll leave all the lights on (wasting all their gas), put a candle in the window, and then pretend that none of that was for Phil’s benefit at all. “Don’t overthink anything.”
It’s a kind thing to say because they both know that Phil overthinks everything. He’s still overthinking when they lock up the office (the sign has fallen down again. PJ gives it an exasperated kick back under the door), absentmindedly buttoning his coat in the wrong order so one side is shorter than the other and forgetting his gloves.
He and PJ part at the library, PJ going left to catch the bus and Phil going right, to Somers Town and to Dan. PJ doesn’t say anything but scuffs his knuckles across Phil’s shoulder and winks.
Dan is standing outside Somers Town which is, as always, completely full and illuminated in gold, all of their lamps fizzing and cloudy in the smog. The colour seems to hang in the air around Dan and clutches onto his smile as he sees Phil (in his wrongly buttoned coat, his missing gloves, his hair pushed back from his face through the sheer worry of overthinking). Phil walks into a cloud that seems to contain just the two of them and says, “Hello. Have you been waiting long?”
Dan says, “No. Just an hour.”
“I’ve spent all of that time trying to lean against this building in a really nonchalant way so that it didn’t look like I’d been waiting, but of course, I have been and I’m not a very nonchalant person, really, so that failed. A little. I just wanted you to know that I was here.” Dan waits for Phil to say something in reply but Phil can’t. Dan says, “What happened to your coat?”
“Oh.” Phil looks down. “Nothing, I just haven’t- I missed a button. Or two buttons. Maybe all of them.”
Dan clicks his tongue against his teeth and leans forward to, one by one, undo each of the buttons until Phil’s coat is completely open. He holds Phil’s lapels, for a second, before he redoes the buttons, one by one, from bottom to top, ending with his hands right at Phil’s throat, fingers spread across his collar. Phil swallows, watches Dan’s eyes track the movement.
“There we go,” Dan says, as though words are an effort. There are freckles across his cheeks, lighter than Phil’s, little sparks of someone who goes out into the sun frequently (with who? Phil wants to know, who do you go in the sun with? He wants to see Dan in the summer as well as here, in the winter, in autumn, in spring, everywhere), the curve of one dimple always visible, even when he’s not smiling (but he is now, somewhat hopefully). There’s amber in his eyes. “Are you ready? Did you bring your notebook?”
Phil blinks. “What?”
“Your notebook.” The dimple deepens. “For the job?”
“Right,” Phil says. “The job. Right.”
Dan pulls at Phil’s collar, once, and says, “Let’s go.”
Phil remembers the way to Zils Street, which surprises him. He’d thought that he’d forgotten most of the details of that job, or at least tried to, but he overtakes Dan on street, kicking leaves out of his way to try and make some kind of noise. Kensington is always so quiet. Phil had liked it at first, always expected that he’d be the type of person who enjoyed quiet, but then he hated it. He much prefers the street he and PJ live on, loud and constantly busy in comparison to this, silence so overwhelming that you can touch it, feel it on your shoulders.
“What was the job?” Dan says, very quietly. Walking down this street is like being in a library. “You don’t have to give me the full details.”
“We shouldn’t have done it,” Phil replies, equally quietly. “We don’t usually do that sort of thing but he came into our office and said there was a ghost but the ghost looked exactly like him but sort of different. Him with a different hairstyle and odder clothes.”
Dan raises his eyebrows. “That sounds terrifying.”
“He said that this ghost kept telling him to wake up, even when he was awake, and it would knock things over, like it was real, and it was sad, so he wanted to reassure it because it was him, but then it would say things about not being able to get back somewhere. PJ thought he was taking opium, to be honest, but it sounded interesting, so we went. Or we came, I should say. Here, to Zils Street.”
They’re at the house. It’s very pretty, Phil remembers that. All the houses here are. It has little pillars and a veranda off the second storey where you could stand and wait for your husband to come back from sea. There’s a lamp burning on the bottom floor but all the floors above are in darkness. “My landlord,” Dan nods at the light. “I’m right at the top so I can sneak you in.”
Phil sighs with relief. It’s not the same rooms. “Sneak me in?”
“He doesn’t like me inviting friends over.” Phil doesn’t remember this about the landlord from before but maybe it changed, afterwards. “You have to be quiet, no knocking things over.”
Phil, by some miracle, doesn’t knock anything over, despite the entire staircase being littered with things designed to make him do just that. Dan’s rooms are right on the fifth floor, the attic, the servant's’ quarters Dan hisses, three rooms of equal size, very modestly furnished apart from the middle room, which has (taking up precisely 90% of the space) a piano. “It’s out of tune,” Dan whispers. “But it’s pretty much the only reason why I took these rooms.”
Phil whispers, “Do we have to keep quiet the whole time? He’s right down on the bottom floor.”
“He has very good hearing,” Dan replies. “And I don’t want to get evicted. But, I could play, possibly, and we could talk. The music would cover it.”
“That could work.” Phil stands, awkwardly, in the centre of the room. Dan sits at the piano bench, which is the only place to sit in the tiny space and, with a moment’s hesitance, pats the space next to him. Phil sits.
“Was it a ghost? The thing that looked the same as him?” Dan murmurs. “Or was it something else?”
“Our friend Louise said that it was possible to fall out of your own dreams.”
Dan turns to look at him. They’re too close for that, their noses almost brush. Phil leans back. Dan leans forward. “What does that mean?”
“We didn’t really listen to her, but I think- I think it means that it was him, from a dream. Another him, a different one. And he was trying to tell himself something. He had so many notebooks, you can’t even imagine. They were all purple. He’d drawn graphs and charts and everything. And we just stuck to the too much opium explanation and then he moved.”
Dan sits, very still, and then starts playing. Phil doesn’t recognise the music, but it’s sweet and light. “I don’t really play much-”
“This sounds like something that plays when you visit a shop in Pokemon.”
Dan doesn’t stop but laughs in surprise. “That’s what I was going for,” and then, “Sorry, what?”
Phil can only repeat, “What?” back to him.
Dan blinks, keeps playing, and says, “I told you they were getting clearer, didn’t I? I think this is music from one of them, the piano one.”
“Also, yesterday, I wasn’t entirely honest when I said about the person in the dreams. You asked me if they were someone that I liked but I think it’s more, you know, someone that-” Dan hits a wrong note, wrinkles his nose. “Someone that-”
“You love,” Phil says. “Someone that you love.”
Dan lifts his hand from the keys, turns to Phil and whispers, so quietly that it’s really just a release of air, “Yes. I can’t remember them.”
“That’s fine. That’s not your fault.”
“I wouldn’t exactly mind if they fell out of my dreams.”
Phil says, “That would be-”
“Phil, you can correct me if I’m wrong, I won’t be offended and I hope you won’t be either, but am I misreading this?” Dan casts a hand through the air between them, from his heart to Phil’s, taps Phil’s coat lightly. “Or am I just being hopeful for no reason? Am I misreading the signals?”
Phil reaches out and catches Dan’s hand as he’s pulling it back to his chest. Dan freezes under his touch. Phil swallows and says, “No. Not misreading. You’re reading all of them.”
Dan smiles, a slow reveal that lights up his face. “Can I kiss you?”
Phil says, “I-”. Dan reaches up with his other hand and touches his thumb to Phil’s bottom lip. “Do you want to?”
“Yes,” Dan breathes. “From the first second I saw you.”
It’s an awkward angle, given that they’re sat on a piano bench, twisted to face each other, and Dan’s mouth lands somewhere on Phil’s chin but he smiles and just cups Phil’s cheek with his hand and tilts him to the angle that he wants.
“It hasn’t been very long,” Phil says, words landing on Dan’s cheek. “The first second you saw me.”
“That’s not true,” Dan replies. “It’s been years.”
The next kiss lands better, and then the one after that, chaste and close-mouthed, tiny little pecks that Phil wants to chase. It’s been a long time since Phil kissed anyone, not in reality, and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, isn’t sure what part of Dan he wants to touch because he wants to touch every part. He skims his fingertips up Dan’s sides and Dan hums against his mouth. Phil hums back and grips as much fabric as he can to pull Dan up and towards him. When Dan curves over him he sighs, too loudly, it echoes right around the room.
“Quiet,” Dan chides. He’s opened some of Phil’s coat, one of his hands is inside, fingers splayed on Phil’s shirt, a whisper of cheap fabric away from actually being on Phil’s skin. “You have to be quiet.”
“I can’t,” Phil says, sounding completely shellshocked, even to his own ears. “I had to- I wanted to tell you something.”
Dan bunches Phil’s shirt in his fist. One of the buttons on his coat probably breaks. “Now?”
Phil, finally, finally, touches his fingers to patch of red on Dan’s jawline. His hands are shaking as they scuff across Dan’s cheek and he says, “It can wait.”
Dan, hint of wonderment in his voice, says, “Phil.”
Phil, unable to hold himself steady, leaning over a balcony to leave a note, no, throwing open the doors of the balcony and not waiting like he should, says, “Dan,” and kisses him, properly, open-mouthed and clicking teeth, like they’ve done it a hundred times before. He sinks into it instantly, keeps his fingertips dancing on Dan’s jaw. Dan flattens his palms on Phil’s chest and sighs. Phil catches it, presses it into Dan’s neck, his collarbone.
“We’ve done this before,” Dan whispers. “We’ve done-”
Phil opens his mouth on the fluttering wingbeat of Dan’s pulsepoint and says, “When?” Dan doesn’t answer. “When?”
“I don’t know,” Dan whines. “Yesterday. Last night. The night before. I don’t-”
Phil pulls Dan further, up and into his lap. Dan hits the piano keys like a crash of thunder and sends a pile of leather bound sheet music down onto the wooden floorboards. They freeze; both of Dan’s hands inside Phil’s coat and Phil’s forehead on Dan’s shoulder.
Someone with an American accent shouts, “Mr Howell,” up the stairs.
“Sorry!” Dan shouts, too close to Phil’s ear. “It won’t happen again.” To Phil he mumbles, “We should stop, just for now, do your rooms have a strict landlord? Can we make noise there?”
“I don’t have a strict landlord,” Phil replies. “And we can make all the noise we want.”
Dan traces circles across Phil’s ribs and mumbles, “Do you think that you can fall out of your own dreams? Like your friend said?”
“I didn’t used to,” Phil says. “We weren’t very patient with that case, if it happened again now I’d be more understanding of him. But- I do think it’s possible. Now, I do.”
“What changed your mind?”
Phil looks at Dan, the exact person that did change his mind, tumbling out of all of Phil’s dreams and right into his lap. “Something.”
Dan laughs, Phil feels the vibration of it. “I want you to stay.”
“I don’t think I can. Things would only get louder.”
They have to tiptoe to Dan’s door. Dan whispers, “You can slide down the bannister from top to-” and then stops at the look on Phil’s face. “Or not. Just be really quiet. When can I see you again?”
“Whenever you want,” Phil says. “Tomorrow. In an hour. Next week.”
“Tomorrow,” Dan says, “Is too far away.”
Phil can’t kiss him. Kissing leads to more and will mean that he can’t leave. He presses his forehead to Dan’s, once, and then leaves, trying not to look back (he does though. Of course he does).
The walk downstairs takes an eternity. Phil thinks an hour must have passed by the time he reaches the fourth floor, trying to walk on the sides of his feet and also holding his breath.
The second floor is the floor. He stops, up onto his toes, and looks. The door to the rooms, to his rooms, is open but everything beyond it is in darkness. Phil wonders if the mirrors are still there. Those had really made PJ uneasy, walls of mirrors reflecting nothing but each other (“I don’t know what’s strange about it,” PJ said. “But it’s just not right. It doesn’t feel right”). By some miracle, he makes it outside, past the obstacle course of vases and ornaments dotting the stairs, sneaking through the front door as quietly as a ghost.
PJ has left a candle burning in the window, as expected. Phil wishes he wouldn’t do that, not with the curtains so close. PJ himself is in bed, fake yawning and fake casual when he asks, “How did it go?”
Phil’s head is a glorious mess of this is the real one PJ and we’re together now, at least I think we are, and he said he loves the someone in his dreams but the someone in his dreams is me, it’s me, I kissed him, finally, I feel like I should say finally but I think it’s happened before and he lives on Zils Street and maybe he did fall out of a dream, my dream, into Zils Street, or someone fell out of someone’s dream, I don’t know.
What comes out, from all of that, is, “He lives on Zils Street.”
PJ says in the fake yawn position, arms thrown over his head. “And you knew this?”
“You remember, what Louise said, about why the ghost looked like-”
“It wasn’t a ghost, Phil. That guy was drunk, remember? He was drunk every time we-”
“No, it wasn’t a ghost. It was him. From another place.”
“Really Phil? Have you run into any dream yous around London?”
“We should go back there,” Phil says. “I’m going back there. I don’t think that job’s over, not really.”
PJ says, “Hmm,” non-committedly and then, “I wasn’t expecting you back.”
“He has a really strict landlord.”
“There’s the real reason.” PJ yawns, genuinely this time. “Blow out the candle please.”
“You don’t need to leave a candle in the window. I’m not your lost husband returning from war.”
PJ, halfway into sleep, mumbles, “I’m not implying that you’re lost. It’s just to help you find your way back.”
Phil says, “Back from where?” but PJ is already asleep.
--4. slow show--
“Oh!”, says PJ, from behind him. “Don’t worry. He’s in the main bit.”
Phil, halfway through actually stepping into the pen himself, says, “What?”
“I put him in there. You were asleep, you’re always asleep, and I thought that we should just get it done, and-”
“We?” Phil’s voice is as shrill as the entire chorus of meerkats behind him. The ones that are probably plotting how to effectively bully Thor right now. “We? I said he was too small, I said that he needed to stay-”
PJ wrinkles his nose. “And I’m the vet here, Phil, and he was ready to go into the main enclosure. And so there he is.” He points, vaguely, but Phil can’t see Thor. He’s probably hiding. “You have to let him go. He’s not yours in the first place.”
“You shouldn’t have just taken him,” Phil says. “I was doing it at my own pace.”
“Your own glacially slow pace, right.”
Phil finally looks at PJ. “Are you angry with me for something?”
PJ, once, would have looked like this was the most ridiculous thought in the world, but instead he avoids Phil’s eyes and says, “No. Not at you. Not for anything you’ve done.”
Phil says, “What?”
“It was the right thing to do. Don’t bring him back in. And get the pen cleaned.”
Phil kneels down as close to the main enclosure as he can. It’s difficult, Thor’s little pen was inside but the gate led outside, to the proper bit, which is huge and full of wooden bridges and tunnels that a very shy and socially awkward meerkat could hide under. Phil touches the grate of the pen roof and looks but he can only see Billy, stood proudly on one of the grass mounds. Phil hates Billy.
PJ thinks this is an amazing time to say, “Oh, and I’ve set up the date.” When Phil looks at him, incredulous, he just raises his eyebrows. “Me and Dan, you and Chris. It’ll be fun, he’s excited to meet you.”
“I can’t go on a double-date with you and Dan.”
“Really?” PJ’s tone is suddenly razor sharp, the word cracks like a whip. “Why not?”
“I’m really awkward on dates, maybe we could go by ourselves, just me and-”
“No, I want it to be all four of us. I want you to spend time with me and Dan. If you get awkward then we can help you.”
There is nothing Phil can say in response. The truth, of course, is: PJ, I love Dan. I love him. I loved him since the first second I saw him and it was so sudden and immediate that I nearly fell into the otter’s pool. And now, now, I can see that he maybe liked me, a little bit, but I missed it, I missed the whole thing, and I have no idea how I did but that’s just me, isn’t it, always working things out too late. I can’t sit across from you two on a double-date, I can’t, because whenever I’m around him the words, the honest words, are just sitting there in my throat and if we’re together too long then I’ll say something and it will be terrible for everyone. It will be torture, of the most heartbreaking kind, don’t make me do it.
He can’t say any of that. He says, “Fine, okay, when?”
“The weekend,” PJ replies. “I’ll text details.” He watches Phil start pulling on the thick gloves that they use to handle more aggressive animals. “Don’t go in there. You need to let him acclimatise. He’s probably hiding.”
“Because he’s scared,” Phil says. “You shouldn’t have done it.”
“You weren’t going to. I knew you weren’t. You need to just do things, Phil, not just wait for them to happen.”
Phil walks the complete length of the main enclosure five times, slipping on the mud and catching raindrops on his fringe. There’s no Thor, but that makes sense, with all the underground tunnels. Phil would be hiding too. Billy gives him a triumphant look. Phil says, “Shut up, Billy,” and gets a chirp in reply that, in meerkat language, is probably something very insulting.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil says, “Oh, thank you.”
“You don’t usually drink them but you find you’re drinking them more and more recently,” Dorothy observes.
Phil sits and pulls the cup towards himself. “I suppose that-”
“It’s true. I know.”
“Well, you seem to know me, so-”
“Not here,” Dorothy says. “Not yet. But I know you in other places.”
Phil regards her. She looks like she’s been imagined there, like she’d float away, dandelion seeds on the breeze, if he touched her. He looks around, as if to check that everyone else can see her too. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
Phil waits. Dorothy waits. He says, “What is it?”
“How many dreams are you having?”
Phil says, “I’m-”
“I have five.” She holds her hand, fingers spread. “Five. And then this one, then that’s six.” She does a thumbs-up with her other hand. “Six.”
“But this one’s real,” Phil tells her, gently.
“We’re all in the same places. Isn’t that strange?”
“This one,” Phil says. “Is real.”
Dorothy, cheerfully, says, “One of them has to be!”
“But, no, it’s this-”
“Did you watch my trailer?”
Phil. paddling through the muddy waters of this conversation, had forgotten there even was a trailer. “Yes. I did.”
“I made it for you. To help you.”
“To help me what?”
“I’m not sure it really helped with that.”
Dorothy smiles at him, leans forward with her chin resting on her hand. “You have to find the right one and do what it takes to stay there. The house is important, the house is where it started.”
“Zils Street,” Phil states. She nods. “How do I know which one is the right one?”
“It’s whichever one feels right.”
Phil stirs the caramel into his coffee. “But, that’s the thing. They all do.”
Dorothy watches the caramel disappear and says, “That’s a problem. I’ve never heard of that happening, how can they all feel right?”
“Because someone’s there. In all of them. The same person.”
“Goodness,” she says. “That is a puzzle.”
“And I’m terrible with puzzles.”
Dorothy smiles at him, kindly. “I’ll help you, wherever I can. We’ll work out which one you should stay in.”
Dorothy looks off into the middle distance suddenly, as if struck with inspiration. “I have another appointment.”
“Now?” She hasn’t drunk any coffee. She hasn’t even ordered any. “But what about-”
“You’re not the only one I need to see. We can meet again, Phil, we should meet again.”
Dorothy doesn’t leave, if anything she disappears. In one motion Phil is standing to let her pass him at their tiny table, trying not to knock his drink over, and in the next she’s gone. He’s not even aware of her having walked out of the door. Phil continues stirring his coffee, right until it’s gone cold, then orders another two caramel macchiatos to go.
He writes DAN in solid letters on one cup and leaves it on the balcony.
--5. the dream synopsis--
“If I tell you,” Phil says, “You can’t get angry.”
PJ folds his arms. “Then don’t tell me. Because I will.”
Phil has six blue erasers. He stacks them on top of one another, knocks them over, starts again. “I might quit.”
PJ, very softly, says, “Yeah, because that will solve everything.”
“I’m not exactly a great counsellor anyway, am I? I should be the one getting careers advice.”
“Make an appointment with Louise then.”
“I’m too emotionally involved.”
Phil stops stacking erasers and looks at PJ. “PJ, I need to tell you some things, and they’ll sound weird and you might not-”
“I’m going to take one guess what this is about-” PJ begins and then stops as Phil presses the academic diary into his hands. “Isn’t this your dream journal?”
“That’s what it’s about.”
PJ laughs. “Oh! I thought you were going to tell me that you’d met Dan after all and that you’d taken him home and-”
“Come on Phil. I told you, it’s a-”
“I sent him away! PJ, I can’t explain it. I lose focus of my thoughts and-”
PJ holds up the diary. “How is this related to Dan? How are these two things-”
PJ says, “Are you seeing him again?”
There’d been a chain of texts from Dan, punctuated by other texts saying i’m sorry i’m being dramatic and clingy i did warn you and Phil can’t think very much about the roaring in his head, all his own voice, five other versions of his voice (bubbly, more northern, soft, gentle and coaxing, sad), saying that they don’t want to lose him, not this one, to lose him, when he’s as close as he’s ever been. Phil says, “Yes.”
PJ nods. “You want me to read this? You’re sure?”
“I want you to read it.”
i have thought says one text. of nothing else except you since last night. or that’s a lie i’ve thought of nothing else except you for three months. i don’t know how you’re real. i don’t know how someone like you can BE real. you’re too perfect did someone dream you did I dream you. did you mean everything you said.
“Will it make sense then?” PJ says.
(Phil, at loss, had replied Yes, of course I did. I meant it all. Dan’s texts are like poems song lyrics, a list of poems about Phil, and he can only respond with Yes and Me too and I know).
“No,” Phil says. “It won’t.”
--6. dan howell--
“It can wait.” Dan takes off his golf hat and leans over to remove Phil’s. “We need to talk about this. Properly.”
“About the dreams?”
“Alternate realities. That’s what you called them.”
“I was tired,” Phil says. “And they’re dreams. Everyone has dreams.”
“Not the same dreams, over and over, at, like different stages. That’s not dreaming, that’s watching a box set and picking up the next episode.” Dan, having taken away the golf hat, cards his fingers through Phil’s hair. “Episodes starring you. How many are there even?”
“I think five.”
“And I’m in all of them? Is it weird to be jealous of a dream version of yourself?”
Phil almost laughs. For most people, yes; for Dan, no. Dan gets jealous easily, has said well why don’t you just marry Janice from the shop on more than one occasion. Dan would absolutely be jealous of himself. “We’re not together,” Phil says. “Not in any of them.”
“But you want to be? There’s not, like, one where you hate me, is there?”
“No,” Phil says. “I love you. Everywhere.”
“Maybe that’s the problem then.”
“It’s not possible. Not in all of them. In one I think you’re with PJ.”
Dan, incredulous, says, “PJ?”, with such horror that PJ (in his flat in Brighton) probably stops whatever he’s doing to shudder and grab at his heart.
--1. absent treatment--
“Me,” Phil says. “Um, again. I have more questions.”
He folds himself down into the chair. Louise, gracefully sitting opposite him, says, “I thought you might. It’s all very confusing. Would you like some tea? It’s lavender.”
The tea set (teapot and neat china cups) are the same red as the walls. The same red as Louise’s lipstick, as the blush expertly faded across her cheekbones. Phil accepts the tea to be polite, and has to hold his breath from the sickly perfume smell of it.
“What are the questions?”
“You said that we have to be together in all of them and they’ll stop. But, does that mean, if we’re together in all of them then I never dream about any of them again? That I would lose all of them?”
Louise processes this for a moment. “I think that would be the case, yes. Why, are you attached to any of them?”
“I’m attached to all of them.” Phil tries very hard not to think about the Dan with curly hair and clothes that are apparently very expensive but you can’t really tell but he goes along with it anyway when Dan presents them from fancy monochrome shopping bags and says I know it’s all black again, but, the same Dan who learns things that he knows Phil will like on the piano, the same Dan who once smudged his fingertip over a webcam and said but you’re too far away like Manchester was the other end of the solar system.
“Not one in particular?”
The same Dan who says they shouldn’t ever go to bed angry because his parents used to do that and awkward breakfasts are the worst so they end up sitting in the lounge until 3am talking through Dan’s jealousy and Phil’s insecurities and how they’re not certain about much but they’re certain that they love each other. And that’s all that we need, really, isn’t it, Phil? Everything else can wait.
Phil swallows. “Not one in particular.”
“Well that’s good,” Louise says. “It would be very difficult if you were.”
“You think they’ll disappear then?” Phil says. “The dreams. And I’ll stay here.”
“I’m fairly positive that’s what would happen.”
Phil says, “Right,” and then, with an urgency that surprises even him, “But could I stop it from happening? Could I? If I really tried and I really-”
“I don’t know,” Louise says, eyes wide. “I couldn’t say.”
(The same Dan who, if Phil needs to go anywhere without him, stands morosely in the window of their flat with one palm pressed to the glass and the other waving the saddest wave Phil has ever seen. Seperation anxiety he likes to say. When will my husband return from war? He keeps waving until Phil, on the street outside, waves back. And then he smiles).
--6. dan howell--
Phil, in shock, as much shock as if Dan was reading his actual diary, had broken the padlock and waltzed right in, says, “That’s my-”
“Dream diary,” Dan says. “But, really, it’s just a whole load of, like, poems about me.”
My whole life, Phil thinks, is a load of poems about you.
“What does this mean?” Dan opens to, of course, the middle page. “About the right one?”
“It’s something, someone, I think Louise, said, I-”
“Louise is in these?”
“They’re dreams,” Phil says. “You don’t dream about strangers.”
“I do,” Dan says. “Or, I think I do. I never remember my dreams. What does this mean?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t mean anything to us, this is the real one.”
“Was there any doubt about that? This is where we’re together.”
Together, Phil thinks. Keeping a polite distance from each other when they’re walking down the street. Forgetting to, in videos, most of the time and then having to spend the next day looking at Dan as he frowned at tumblr, all the gifs and the photos about personal space. The analysis, Dan (oddly for someone who never misses the small details of anything) isn’t a fan of the analysis. Always watching for cameras at a party where everyone, everyone, is vlogging. Having to get their friends to delete photos, ask not to be filmed (Phil is an expert at the polite, hey I’d really appreciate it if you weren’t doing that right now. The quietly assertive DM).
Together, of course they are.
--4. slow show--
Phil says, “You-”
“You can keep them as pets,” Dan whispers. “I researched.”
“You went into the enclosure? For Thor?”
“I went into the enclosure for you,” Dan corrects. “And you were right, the others are mean. That one with the stripe on its tail has a serious meerkat anger problem. I’m guessing that’s Billy.” Phil nods yes. Dan says, “PJ shouldn’t have put him there, I told him, we had, um, we had an argument about it, actually, I don’t know what he was thinking.”
Phil says, “Hey, do you remember the otters we had? The brothers? They were really clingy to each other and we used to have to prise them apart to take one to the vet station and it was impossible to give them any medicine, and one of them was incredibly overprotective?”
Dan frowns. “Edward and Alphonse?”
“Yes. They were sick all the time, remember, before they went to that aquarium, and there were so many times I had to come in at like, two in the morning because they’d only take medicine from me. You remember?”
Dan says, “I remember, but what does-”
Phil in a rush, says, “At the party. When I left. I didn’t have the chance to tell you, but they called me in. I had to go straight away because they thought Alphonse was gonna pass out or something if he didn’t have his tablets, and I wanted to tell you, but I had to leave like there and then. But that’s why I disappeared. And I was going to explain but, then, you were with PJ and it didn’t seem to matter all that much anymore.”
Dan stares up at Phil for a second, then bridges the tiny exhale of a gap to lean his head on Phil’s knee. “It matters,” he says, so quietly that Phil has to grab the words from the air. “It matters to me. I thought you’d left because you were bored of talking to me or something.”
“I waited,” Dan says. “For a long time.”
“At the party?”
“And before it. I thought you’d left so I was just like well, I won’t wait if he’s not here, so I got drunk and then there was PJ, and-”
“He loves you,” Phil says. “He told me.”
Dan says, “Phil,” and, “You should have said that it was the otters, you should have said.”
“But it worked out for the best,” Phil says. “You and PJ, I mean, that’s worked out for everyone.”
Dan says, “Phil,” stops as if he’s going to say something profound, and then says, “Phil,” again.
“But, anyway. That’s why I left. I didn’t want you to think that I didn’t want to talk to you anymore or something, that wasn’t the case at all. I didn’t even want to leave.”
“No,” Phil says, but it doesn’t seem like enough. He tries to fill on syllable with as much truth as he can.
Dan looks up at him. “I should tell you-”
“Thank you. For rescuing Thor. But I guess he’s officially attached to me forever now.”
Dan laughs, but it’s unconvincing and wet sounding. “I think he was probably attached to you the moment he saw you.”
“I think that you probably have that effect on a lot of people without realising.”
Phil thinks this conversation is teetering very close to Too Far. Dan sits back on his heels and puts his hand where he’d been leaning his forehead, fingers curled around Phil’s kneecap. “PJ’s happy,” Phil says. “I don’t think I’ve ever-”
“That’s not true. PJ could be happy with anyone, he’s always happy.”
“And you’re not?”
“I’m selective. But when someone makes me happy it’s the best and worst thing. Like, when I’m not around them it hurts, but when I am around them, I’m, like, the best version of me. You know?”
“I meant,” Phil says, “Are you happy with PJ?” The cut on Dan’s cheek is bleeding. Phil pulls his sleeve over his fingers and wipes under Dan’s eye. “That’s what I meant.”
“What do you want me to say to that?”
“The truth,” Phil says, weakly. “I want you to say the truth.”
The next ten seconds are a sudden eruption of PJ entering the enclosure, Thor (having flashbacks) shrieks at the sight of him and tries to bury himself in Phil’s hoodie, PJ says, “Dan, are you bleeding?” as Dan propels himself aways from Phil so quickly that he seems to levitate for a second, but somewhere, somewhere in the middle of all of that, in the before, Dan whispers, as carefully as if he was writing it down on a post-it, or recording it for a video, not as happy as I would be with you. Did you just say that, Phil wants to yell, did you really just say that.
“Are you bleeding?” PJ repeats. “How did that happen?” He cups Dan’s face in his palm.
“I was getting Thor out of the enclosure.”
“Are you serious?” PJ sighs. “He’ll never get over Phil now, he’ll literally just sit and pine for him, that’s not fair.”
“No,” Dan says. “It’s not. That’s why they should be together.”
PJ says, “Go to our office and start cleaning those cuts. I’ll be there in five seconds.” He kisses Dan, the sort of lingering promise of a kiss that means more and later, and Phil has to look away. Thor, at his collar, wails pitifully.
He’s still looking away as the door opens and closes, and PJ, clearing his throat, says, “This is a terrible-”
"You’ve got blood.” PJ points. “Right on your cuff. You didn’t go in there too?” His eyes rake over Phil’s pale and injury free arms. “No? That’s weird.” But his expression says no, it’s not. Dan hadn’t jumped away that quickly, Phil hadn’t pulled his arm back that quickly. “I haven’t told Dan about our plans yet, I’m going to do it now, but I- You haven’t got any scratches on you. Where’s the blood from?”
“It must be from earlier.”
“Right,” PJ says. “Okay. So, I guess he belongs to you now.”
Phil feels the colour drain from his face but also two tiny specks of his heart rejoin. “What?”
PJ gestures to Thor, making himself comfortable against Phil’s chest. “Thor. Of course. I wasn’t trying to keep the two of you apart, I was just doing what I thought was best. I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay,” Phil says. PJ approaches and tries to pat Thor on the head. Thor makes the angriest noise Phil has ever heard him make. PJ takes a few steps back.
“I’ll text you,” PJ says. “Plans for tomorrow. Or, actually, I’ll get Dan to come over and tell you. You know, just so everyone knows exactly what’s happening.” He leans to pat Phil’s shoulder. Thor growls. “Wow, he’s really possessive of you, isn’t he?”
“I suppose.” Phil and Thor both watch PJ leave. Thor makes a chirping noise with two very distinct syllables as the door closes. Phil says, “Thor, watch your language.”
He rearranges the blue and puts Thor safely back into his pen, gives him a few more extra treats than usual and kneels beside the cage, stroking right down the length of Thor’s back and listening to him purr.
“Did he say not as happy as I would be with you? Did you hear him say that?” Phil whispers. “I don’t know if I dreamt it or not.”
Thor huffs and turns to headbutt Phil’s hand as if to say of course he did you idiot.
“I waited too long,” Phil tells him. “That’s all. I just waited too long.”
Thor chirps once, nuzzles his face into Phil’s palm and then dive bombs into the nearest pile of blue paper.
--2. epistolary romance--
There’s no direct answer but the piano starts up, the sweet and light Pokemon shop music, just on a correctly tuned piano, not one that came with the room and takes up all the space.
“The piano’s white,” Phil calls. “And there’s no mirrors. Why don’t you have-”
Dan stops playing with a smash of keys. “How do you know that?”
“You told me.”
“No, I didn’t. I don’t tell anyone that.”
“Why don’t you have any mirrors?”
“That-” Dan says. “That’s a long story. That I don’t share.”
Phil drains his coffee and says, “Your notes. I’ve lived next door to you for three months, that’s maybe why you haven’t been aware of me but I don’t know how I wasn’t, like, instantly aware of you.”
“The notes,” Dan says, “Are just notes. They’re not to be spoken about out loud.”
“But you mean it? What you write on them, they’re real?”
“I don’t write anything that I don’t mean.”
The piano starts up again.
When Phil goes out again, later, all the mugs have been removed. Hello Kitty is back, waving cheerfully. She has a single note attached to her paw.
The note says phil wake up
--3. caramel macchiato--
“I’m awake,” Phil says. “You’re here!”
“Only to tell you to wake up, your boss is pretty annoyed. He said you sleep all the time. I thought you were joking about that but you really do.” Dan taps his knuckles against Phil’s temple once more. “You sleep like you’re under a spell or something.”
“You’re here and it’s not four.”
“No, it’s my lunch break.” Dan smiles.
Phil presses a finger where one dimple would be. “I miss your dimples.”
Phil says, “How do you-”
“Dimples are a muscle deformity anyway. Who would want those?” Dan stands up. “You should set an alarm. If you haven’t thought of that already.”
Phil hadn’t. How has he not thought of just setting an alarm. “I’ll do that. For today. At four.”
“You sound fairly confident that I’m gonna be there.”
Dan reaches out to grab Phil’s hand and pulls him up to his feet. “I’ll be there. But this is the last time that I’m waiting. I mean it.”
“Do you?” Phil looks down at their still interlocked hands.
Dan looks down too, curls their fingers together for a second, and then detaches himself. “No, I don’t. What’s one more day of waiting, really? What’s one more week, month, whatever.”
“I’ll set an alarm,” Phil says. “I’ll be there at four. I promise I will.”
He follows Dan back out into the shop where PJ, behind the counter, yells, “Sleeping Beauty rises!” and Phil thinks well, not quite, but almost. Soon.
--1. absent treatment--
“Hello there,” Phil replies. “Can you come up?”
“To the office?”
“PJ, I mean Liguori, isn’t there. I sent him out for lunch. I have to show you something.”
Dan smiles again. “Of course.”
They keep a polite distance until Phil satisfies himself that the lawyers aren’t there and crowds Dan into the wall next to the door, fallen sign at their feet. He says, “Hello,” again and kisses him. He means for it to be just the once, but it’s not.
“We’re two steps to being inside,” Dan protests.
“I couldn’t wait. I haven’t seen you for so long.”
“A day,” Dan says, but he’s still smiling. “It’s been a day.”
Phil finds it very hard to pull away, his body doesn’t want to cooperate and Dan laughs and says, “You’ve made my hair even more curly, look at it,” so Phil ruffles it up even more and they end up pressed against the door for far longer than he intends but also not long enough.
When they’re finally inside Dan reaches for him again and Phil almost goes but stops himself. “No, I really do have to show you something. It’s about the dreams.”
“No,” Phil says. “Mine.”
Dan looks confused. “Yours?”
Phil clears a whole pile of sapphire crystals from his desk to reveal the Dan Howell file; the spider diagram, his notes, the copies of Dan’s notes. Phil picks it up, scattering blue everywhere, and holds it out to Dan. “This is what I wanted to show you.”
Dan stares, takes in his name on the cover. Phil stays holding it in midair, Dan makes no movement to take it. “What’s that?”
“It’s my dreams,” Phil replies. “I have a few things to tell you.”
--6. dan howell--
Phil blinks into reality sat on their stairs. Looking up he can see Dan’s socked feet on the glass floor above and, beyond them, Dan himself, face rumpled with sleepiness and concern. Phil thinks I’m on the stairs how am I on the stairs.
Dan repeats, “Phil. What are you doing down there?”
“I don’t- I was just talking to you.”
“No, you weren’t. It’s, like, 6am.” He and Dan have never spoken at 6am. Texts, yes. Photos taken on train station platforms and sent with captions that say i’ll see you soon xxxx, yes. Watching each other fall asleep on Skype, yes. Actual speaking, no. “I woke up and you weren’t there, and then I couldn’t hear you knocking stuff around the kitchen so I got worried. And then here you are, sitting on the stairs.”
“I was just talking to you.”
“Not me.” Dan starts to make his way down towards Phil. “One of the other ones, maybe. Are you sleepwalking now? That’s going to be a problem, you’re clumsy enough when-”
“I didn’t fall asleep.” Phil wonders though, about the sleepwalking. Whether some version of him is going to sleepwalk right over the balcony and through a set of patio doors. “I know when I fall asleep, I know what it feels like.”
Dan arrives on the same step and sits down. They’re both too tall for it, the staircase is too narrow to accommodate, so he actually ends up half in Phil’s lap, elbows on Phil’s knees, chin on Phil’s shoulder. Phil makes a sad little oof noise. Dan hums in reply. “Which one was it?”
“The one you were talking to.”
“I don’t remember.”
Dan, maybe feeling brave because Phil can’t see his face properly, says, “Do you have a favourite?”
Phil pushes his nose into Dan’s hair. “You’re my favourite.”
“Would still like to know who my competition is.”
“There’s no competition. There’s just you. You can’t be your own competition.”
Dan huffs. Phil hears it and feels it, right through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. If there’s anyone who would start thinking that he was his own competition then it’s Dan. Probably. “Are they different though? They must be.”
“They’re different in some ways. But they’re still all you.”
Dan says, “Tell me how.”
“They’re just different variations of you.” Phil tries to move but Dan clings on, traps his arms. “Are you jealous? We said- remember, when we talked about-”
“Are we together in any more of them? Since the last time.”
Phil thinks about the quietest bar in Manchester, the top of his list, a list he’d made just for Dan, so that Dan wouldn’t feel too on show (our lives are on show Phil had protested. You write stuff about me everywhere. But then Phil would have walked into every bar in the country with Dan on his arm. He would have announced their entrance everywhere. He still would). The feeling of a cheap wool coat under his fingers. The sound of a piano. The touch of someone’s forehead, resting on his knee.
“We’re getting there,” he says. “In most of them. I think.”
Dan nods. The point of his chin presses into Phil’s shoulder. “So, sleepwalking now? I should build a pillow fort around you every night so you can’t go anywhere.”
“We should be doing that anyway,” Phil replies, because a pillow fort sounds like a great idea, but he doesn’t feel good about the potential of sleepwalking, the potential of apparently blinking himself out of a dream. Which one had he been in? He has a vague recollection of holding out files, yellowing papers that must have slipped from his hands as he, fainted? Got knocked out? Fell asleep while standing up?
(Or, maybe, wishing so hard for one particular version of Dan, his Dan, that his subconscious had simply said okay, here you go! and woken him up).
(That’s never happened before).
Dan rubs his thumbs in circles up and down Phil’s sides. “Maybe we should do something about this now.”
“What can you do about dreams?”
Dan, obviously not having thought this far ahead, adopts the fake confident tone that Phil can spot from a mile off. Dan knows that Phil can spot it from a mile off. It’s the one he uses on stage, at meet and greets, in live shows sometimes. “I’ll think of something,” like he’s trying to reach the fans up in the balcony seats.
“I’m not sure if-”
“You can’t carry on,” Dan says, not unreasonably. “Not like this.”
“I don’t think this is a conversation for 6am, Dan.”
“How would we know what 6am conversations are like?” Dan disentangles himself, pulls Phil to his feet, both of them slipping slightly on the wood of the stairs. Phil will never understand why they chose to rent a duplex with so many sharp corners and edges. “Come back to bed.”
Dan arranges all of their pillows in a cocoon. When they get up in the morning they’ll leave a perfect outline of them both. Dan smacks one of his silver moon pillows (crescent shaped, this is pointless, Dan, how can you sleep on this? met with you don’t understand the aesthetic) underneath Phil’s head and says, “There,” proudly. “Done.”
Phil, pillows of all shapes and sizes pressed to every inch of his right side, says, “Thanks.”
“We’ll talk properly in the morning.”
“It is morning.”
Dan yawns. “I mean, like, 11am or something. The actual morning.”
There’s sudden birdsong, like all the pigeons he shouldn’t be feeding have congregated on the balcony, all wanting his attention. Phil whispers, “Dan, can you hear that?” but Dan is instantly asleep.
--3. caramel macchiato--
“That’s elegant,” Dan observes.
Phil makes a noise not unlike one of the bird chirps. “I-”
“You have the worst alarm I’ve ever heard.”
“Is it four?”
“No, it’s three-thirty. I’m early. Which, by the way, I don’t think you’ve been ever. Your boss said you’ve slept through half your shift. And then he said again in a really dramatic way.”
“I’m not always asleep.”
“Just most of the time?” Dan taps two fingers to the left side of Phil’s forehead. “Wake up. This is me, waking you up.” Phil mimes a dramatic version of doing so, rubbing his fists under his eyes and blinking. “I thought that it was easier for me to wait right next to you because you’d probably notice me here.”
“I notice you everywhere,” Phil says, and instantly feels like he’s missed a step, said this to the wrong Dan, a Dan that he’s further down the line with. This Dan flushes right on the apples of his cheeks and pulls at his too straight fringe. “I mean- I didn’t mean, well I did mean, but I-”
“I know.” Dan’s voice is high, almost shrill. “I know what you meant.” Phil looks at him. Dan swallows and looks away. His eyes are circled with blue shadows, smudges of navy ink on his fingers. “What was the plan? Once you got me here, once you woke up?”
“The plan?” Phil shakes his head. “I don’t have a plan. I never have a plan. I just want to see you.”
Dan wrinkles his nose, casts a hand over himself, head to toe, covering every inch of poorly fitting suit. “Here I am. I’m really not worth having a plan for, to be honest.”
Phil would write a hundred plans for Dan, with maps and diagrams and graphs (he possibly needs at least one of those things right now), but he has no plan for the reality of here I am, after however long it’s been of continually missing four pm. How long has it been? Days, weeks, months. It could literally be any time at all. The blanket is still caught around his feet. “We could take a walk.” He’s never seen outside the coffee shop, he has no idea of what area of London they’re even in. “If you wanted to.”
Dan smiles with one side of his mouth. “Where should we go?”
Phil says, “Anywhere,” too quickly. He tries to recover. “We can talk, you can ask me things. I can ask you things.”
Dan’s smile, somehow, creeps over to the other side of his face. Phil feels the lack of dimples, as always, like a pinprick on his heart. “Such as?”
There are many questions that Phil would like to ask. The one that somehow makes it out is, “Why are you a lawyer?”
“Training to be.”
“Why are you training to be a lawyer?”
“That’s,” Dan says. “That’s a really weird first question to ask.”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Because I want to be?”
Dan says, “No,” and the smile is gone. Any pride Phil had felt it causing it flickers away. “Can I ask a question?”
“Is it why do I sleep so much?”
“No. Well, yes, but not as a first question. We can get to that later.” Dan clears his throat. “How did you know my name?”
It’s expected and also a complete surprise. Phil finally releases himself from the blanket, kicking his feet free and sending it to the floor. “What?”
“You knew my name. The first time. And I wasn’t even that surprised that you did. You can tell me now though, where we’ve met before. I don’t know how I don’t remember you, but it must be-”
“I told you,” Phil says. “We must have met in a past life. Several past lives.”
“That’s not a fair answer.” Dan stands up and Phil is only aware of how close he’d actually been kneeling by the sudden loss of it. “And I knew yours. Before I saw it on your badge. If we’d been switched over I would have written Phil on your cup, no problem. How can that be right?”
“Second question. What did you want to be if you don’t really want to be a lawyer?”
Dan sighs. “You’ll never guess.”
Phil does so. “A pianist.”
Dan sighs again, but this one is deeper sounding, a sigh that seems to hang in the air between them for a half a second. “How could you know that? How do you know that?”
“Is that your second question?” Phil asks, weakly.
“You never answered my first.”
“I did,” Phil says. “I really did.”
They go outside. If Phil hesitates a little, by the doors, he tries not to show it. He has no idea what could possibly be out there. He’d managed to find a coat that looked like it could belong to him, and a Hufflepuff scarf that Dan had said that’s obviously yours about, closely followed by wait do you really not know which-, and Phil had tried to laugh, even though he should have said no, I really don’t, standing, shivering, in a coat that is probably PJ’s.
Dan is wearing the very expensive looking black coat that fits him just as badly as the suit underneath does. It’s too short in the arms and too big on the shoulders. He watches Phil fidget with the ends of the scarf. “Do you want me to open the door?” and then, “Phil?”
Phil says, “Yes. Please.”
“Do you sleep so much in work that you don’t go outside? And I know that’s three questions now, but, I don’t-this is confusing-”
“Where are we? Are we in London?”
“You’re confusing,” Dan finishes. “Wait, what? Of course we are, where else would-”
“Are you serious?” Dan’s eyes dart over Phil’s face. “Kensington. A coffee shop in Kensington. Do you want the street name? The number?”
Phil feels that he already knows the street name. “No, I just, wanted to check.”
Dan makes no move to open the door. “Why would you need to check? Just in case the place had changed?”
“Is that your fourth-”
“Yes. It does that sometimes, when I’m not expecting it.”
Dan smiles, unsure, like he’s trying to work out if Phil is making a joke or not. “That sounds confusing.”
Dan opens the door. As he does so a bus and then two police cars fly past. The expectation of silence only to be met with noise confuses Phil for a second, hovering in the doorway, until Dan pulls on his sleeve and then he’s outside, on Zils Street (of course it’s Zils Street), turning to look back at the coffee shop, on the bottom floor of a Victorian house. Little pillars and a balcony.
(The coffee shop is called Somers Town. Because, again, of course it is. What else would it be called).
“You’d walk straight past it,” Dan says, from behind him. “Wouldn’t you? But, I don’t know, I was walking here one day, to work, and it was, like, suddenly really important that I go in there. Like someone was calling me from inside.”
That was probably me, Phil thinks. Calling you.
“Can I ask my first question again?” Dan asks.
“How did I know your name?” Phil looks at Dan over his shoulder. Dan nods. “I’ve answered that. Why are you training to be a lawyer?”
“Because no one was ever around to tell me it was a terrible idea and I shouldn’t do it if it makes me unhappy.” As Phil turns back Dan touches his arm. “You said we could take a walk.”
“You shouldn’t do it if it makes you unhappy. The lawyer thing, not the walk.”
Dan says, “Thanks Phil, where have you been all my life,” aiming for sarcasm and landing on complete sincerity instead.
“Right here, I suppose,” Phil replies. “In this coffee shop.”
“Sure. Just suspended in time waiting for me.” Dan is still touching his arm. Phil can feel every curve and swirl of his fingerprints. “Where did you want to walk to?”
Phil has no idea. There’s more police sirens (urgh another Dan wrinkles his nose, guess the crime), someone shouting from the other side of the street, the dull amber of streetlights touching all the shadows on Dan’s face. No dimples, no freckles, no laughter lines even. Phil wants to get a paintbrush and add all of them back onto Dan’s cheeks. He doesn’t know where to walk to, it only seemed important that Dan woke him up, that if Dan woke him up it would suddenly be the right Dan, with more freckles than Phil can touch his fingers to and laughter lines that Phil is the direct cause of. This Dan makes Phil sad, tugs at his barely awake mind and says where were you? while Phil asks how is it possible to have no laughter lines, how is it possible for you to have no laughter lines?
Dan says, “Phil?”
“I hadn’t decided. I hadn’t thought much beyond-” Phil points weakly towards him.
Dan looks concerned. “We could-” he nods to the shop’s closed door. “Get a coffee?”
Phil laughs and Dan does too, his actual laugh, the one that comes when Phil fails miserably at golf or drops the Dan vs Phil board or accidentally sets up livestreams too early. Loud and high pitched. “We could do that,” Phil says. “We could absolutely do that.”
Inside, Dan sits up on the counter while Phil, without even asking, makes two caramel macchiatos. He hasn’t turned back on all of the shop’s lights, just the ones over the counter and the first row of tables. Everything else remains in darkness. Dan swings his feet. “Can I ask you my questions again?”
“How did I know your name, how did I know you wanted to be a pianist, do I sleep so much in work that I don’t go outside and why did I need to check if the place had changed?”
“I already told you. I know it from somewhere else. Yes, I do sleep so much that I don’t go outside. And, I wanted to check, just in case it had changed. Because it could have. I’m never sure.”
Phil writes DAN on a cup, the swirl of Dan’s non-existent dimple underneath it, and starts pouring the coffee. Dan watches. “You didn’t ask me many questions. Is that because you already know the answers?”
“No,” Phil says. “The questions I want to ask would probably just confuse you.” Where are your dimples? Why are you so sad here? Did you really feel like someone was calling you to come into the coffee shop? Do you have dreams here? Am I in them? Do you know who I am?
“You confuse me,” Dan replies.
“I’m sorry. I’m trying not to.”
“We’ve met before though,” Dan says. “You can tell me the truth. About how you know my name and I kind of knew yours, we’ve met somewhere. I just don’t remember. I feel like I would have remembered you though. I don’t see how I could ever have forgotten you.”
“We’ve met,” Phil says. “In lots of places.”
--2. epistolary romance--
She doesn’t seem impressed. The note is gone, probably stolen away on the breeze and stuck somewhere in the city centre below, confusing all the passers-by (phil, wake up). He ponders what to write in reply, if there is anything he can possibly say, after spending the morning in front of his notice board, catching memories with his hands. He wanted to play the piano. Do they ALL want to play the piano. Hello Kitty’s paw remains frozen in a wave.
Dorothy has left an answerphone message, continuing to ignore that Phil only replies to her by text, the happy chimes of her voice sing out as he makes his first coffee of the day. “Phil! It was lovely to chat to you! I hope you thought some more about what I said!”
Phil thinks what you said. What had she said? Find the right one and stay there. Do whatever it takes. The house is important. Find the right one.
“It’s important that you think about it! Properly! You’ll know which one is right!” Every sentence is like the swirling yellow slogans of her trailer.
She’d said stay there, not stay here. So this one can’t be the right one. Phil completes a small, circular lap of his kitchen. Touches the toaster, the kettle, three of his collection of mugs, the fridge with Dan’s name still stuck to it. They’re all real. He can feel each of them, under his hand. PJ is real. Phil knows everything about PJ, he knows how they started the firm, he knows their previous clients, he remembers being in university with PJ, every conversation they’ve ever had. If he jumped into the flat next door he’s sure that Dan would be real too.
Or maybe he’s not sure about that one.
“You need to think!” Dorothy suddenly exclaims. Phil jumps. The answerphone message has ten minutes of complete silence in the middle of it but she continues like she’d just taken a two second pause. “Think about why!”
Phil says, out loud, “Why what?”
“Well, why this is happening, of course,” Dorothy replies, from the answerphone message.
“I don’t know if there’s a reason why any of this is happening.”
“Of course there is, there’s a reason for everything. A starting point.”
Phil touches his sofa, the coffee table, his phone screen. All real. There’s the gentle sound of music from next door, the Pokemon shop music, skipping right over the balcony through the open window. I think this is music from one of them, the piano one. I keep thinking I’m trying to impress someone but there isn’t anyone. His hand, checking that things are real, skittering across the line of Dan’s jaw. Sheet music falling to the floor.
“Phil,” Dorothy says. “You dropped something.”
--1. absent treatment--
Phil wakes up on the floor, surrounded by scattered notes, a dropped file. Dan’s name on various pieces of paper. Diagrams and drawings and some of his gemstones. He must have hit the desk when he- when whatever happened. He says, “Dan,” looking up at Dan, surrounded by Dan, clutching Dan’s name in his hands. “Did I-”
“You fainted.” Dan’s face is pale. “I was about to throw you over my shoulder and run downstairs.”
“Well, no, that would have ended horribly. But the intent was there. Also, I threw a glass of water over you.”
Phil pushes himself up, unsteadily, onto his elbows. “That hasn’t happened before.”
“The.” Phil stops, lets the word sit in the air. The wishing for another version of you and then suddenly being there. The right one. The impossibility. You. “Not the fainting, just the-”
“You were giving me those.” Dan points. “Your dreams.” Phil’s dreams, on notepaper across the floor, catching the drops of water from his hair. “You said that you had a few things to tell me and then you fainted.”
“Did you read them?”
“Yes, Phil. I sat here while you were unconscious and I read them. That’s exactly what I did.”
Phil says, “Dan.”
Dan, instantly, replies, “Phil,” and, “What are they, your dreams?”
“They’re your dreams too.” Phil moves onto his knees and reaches for the diagram. “You see? Coffee, piano, vet, university and together.”
“Coffee, piano, white coat and twelve thirty until four.” Dan shakes his head. “I don’t have a fifth one. Not that I remember.”
“You do. You should. The fifth one is the most important one.”
Phil realises that he’s kneeling in a whole puddle of water. Dan hasn’t just thrown a glass, he’d thrown the entire pitcher that lives on PJ’s desk and then two extra glasses for good measure. Huge teardrops of it fall off Phil’s fringe and onto piano. “It doesn’t matter. You never remember them.”
“And you do?” Phil doesn’t answer. Dan kneels down next to him, both of them surrounded by running ink and damp pieces of notepaper. “You remember them? Are we having our own versions of the same dreams? What does that even mean?”
“No, they’re the same dreams, Dan, not our own versions. You’re there, in all of them, just different. I’m in the flat next door when you’re playing the piano. I’m working in the coffee shop that you go to. I’m your tutor when you’re a student. I’m watching you from far away when you’re a vet.”
Dan takes a second. “And what’s the fifth one?”
“You really don’t have a fifth one?”
“No,” Dan says. “I really don’t.” He looks at the papers. “How long have you been making this file?”
“The file’s only a recent thing. The dreams, though, probably about three months.”
Dan says, “Probably.”
“Not probably. Exactly three months.”
“So you already knew me when I came for my appointment.”
“You knew me,” Phil tries. “You knew my name before I said it. We know each other, anywhere, that’s what I was going to try and tell you. Before I fainted.”
Dan picks up one paper, puts it back down, repeats the motion with three others and then says, “Where did you go, when you fainted?” Phil inhales. “That’s what happens, isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t know, I never remember but you do. Look at all of this.” He pushes the papers back and forth, forming and breaking stacks of them. “Look. Do you remember everything that happens? Can you-”
“I’m remembering more,” Phil says. “Every time it feels like I’m remembering more.”
“I wish I did.”
“I was going to tell you.”
“You should have told me sooner.” Dan takes another breath, looks down at the diagram. “What do they mean, do you think? Is this what the file is? You’re trying to put it all together?”
Phil supposes. A jigsaw where none of the pieces fit properly. “The only thing I’m sure about in any of it is you.”
He only realises that he’d been whispering when Dan whispers back. “Tell me from the start.”
“I don’t know where the start is.”
“There has to be a start.”
“Zils Street,” Phil mumbles. “Maybe there. They started after that. It could be the same.”
“Are you saying that I fell out of your dreams? Like what your friend said happened to the last case?”
“I don’t see any other reason as to why you’d be here and actually interested in-”
“I’m real,” Dan says, shrill in the sudden quiet. “I’m absolutely real. And I’m interested, you don’t even-”
PJ, returning from lunch, bursts through the door with both excellent timing and no tact whatsoever. He exclaims, “Phil!” and then, “And, other person!”
Phil says, “PJ,” but Dan is looking at PJ, slightly awestruck, and too surprised to even introduce himself. “This is Daniel Howell.”
PJ looks at the scattered file, the water, half of Phil’s desk decorating the floor. “Well, of course he is.”
“Have we met?” Dan asks.
“Us?” PJ shakes his head. “I don’t think so. We’ve spoken, when you made the appointment, but-”
Dan says, “I feel like-”
“PJ,” Phil interrupts. “I told you to take a really long lunch.”
“I did. I’ve been gone for two hours.”
Phil looks at Dan. Dan looks at the floor.
“I could go and take a second lunch?”
“Take a second and a third,” Phil says. “Or a fourth.”
“I’ll maybe just take the whole afternoon off,” PJ suggests. He nods his head at Phil, a little everything alright? gesture that Phil recognises in any version of PJ. Phil nods back. “Right. Afternoon off. I also, uh, might leave the flat free for the night. If that was something relevant to you. Maybe. Nice to meet you Mr. Howell.”
“I know him,” Dan says, when PJ’s made his exit. “I know him.” He looks at the door and then at Phil. “You’re giving me too much all at once. But, you always give me too much all at once, this is just- tell me properly.”
Phil begins. “Since the job on Zils Street, I’ve had dreams. But they’re not like dreams. They’re the same five, I go to sleep in one and wake up in another, and they’re like lives, I have a life in each one of them, I have a you in each one of them. And, at the beginning, I didn’t remember much, but now I do.”
“What do you remember?”
Phil says, “You. I remember you.”
“I don’t remember you, though. Just the thought of you, even though I didn’t know it was you, just that it was someone- just that there was someone there.”
“It was me. I was there.”
“What does it mean?”
“That’s what I’m trying to work out.”
“What do you think it means? Did you fall out of my dream, like your friend said?”
“Or did you fall out of mine?”
Dan says, “Why would you dream about me?”
Phil blinks. “What?” He looks at Dan, makes sure that Dan is aware of every track of his gaze, up the cheap wool of his coat sleeve, across his shoulders onto his cheeks. The freckles, the dimples, soft curve of his jaw, into the laughter lines around his eyes and then. “Why wouldn’t I dream about you? Look at you, I mean, look at you.”
Dan says, “Phil,” like he’s powerless to say anything else. “You should have said. The first time I came here. You should have said then.”
“You took me by surprise.” You’re always, Phil thinks, taking me by surprise.
Dan finally stands. The knees of his trousers, and the entire bottom half of his coat, are soaked through. He holds a hand out to Phil, which Phil takes instantly without even asking where are we going. “You touched my coat, remember? The first time? You knelt by my chair and touched my coat and I had a distinct sound of you saying black again, Dan? like you were teasing me, and your voice was the same but different and I knew you. I thought Phil isn’t normally clingy and then thought how would I know that? How did I know that? You took your hand away and I wanted you to put it back and I have never- no matter how close I sat to you it wasn’t enough.”
Phil stays half on the ground and half to his feet, halfway through being pulled up by Dan. “I know. I know exactly-”
“It was never close enough. Like I knew we should be closer, but we weren’t and I couldn’t understand why,” Dan whispers, nonsensically. He abruptly stops trying to pull Phil up, the sudden change of momentum sends them both back onto the floor, Dan into Phil’s lap. He presses his mouth to Phil’s shoulder, Phil feels it like a flame through three layers of fabric. “Let me read the files. All of them. In the right order.”
“I have no idea what the right order is,” Phil says.
He puts the files in some semblance of tidiness. The spider diagram is on the top, the shaking lines into equally shaking letters. Dan puts his finger on together and looks at Phil, questioningly. “The fifth one?” Phil nods.
Dan reads the files quietly. There’s no sound other than the rustling of papers and birds singing from outside (which strikes Phil as strange. The only birds they ever hear are pigeons, and he always thinks they sound sad. These sound as perfectly happy as if someone has recorded them and is playing it through the office window). Dan, from time to time, sighs, deeply and sadly, a longing that Phil could touch.
“You remember a lot,” Dan says. “You can do a lot.”
“You could try,” Phil replies. “In some of them, you could try and leave me a signal, or-”
“Maybe I am, without realising.”
“You could be. I don’t know. But, maybe, if you tried to-”
Dan says, “Together,” and, “I wish that I,” and then, “We’re not together in all of them.”
Phil shakes his head. “No.”
“I thought we would be.”
In the end, they take a walk. The files, no matter how much Phil tidies them back into some kind of order, seem to spread further across the floor. The birds get louder. The frown of Dan’s forehead gets deeper. He sighs when they finally step outside, like he’s releasing the sighs of every Dan in every dream. Phil touches his arm, then his shoulder. “I thought we would be too.”
“You don’t have a strict landlord,” Dan whispers, needlessly, the noise of the street floats in and around his voice. “We can make all the noise we want. That’s what you said, except, you said, your parents won’t be there, we can make all the noise we want, you just wanted me to-”
“I just wanted you to come and visit,” Phil finishes. “Like Manchester was the end of the world.”
“I’ve never even been to Manchester.”
“I have. Just not here.”
“It’s your voice,” Dan says. “But with an echo. Let me come and visit you.”
Phil blinks. All of the sounds of London seem to stop. “Now?”
“I can’t wait,” Dan says. “I can’t wait any longer at all.”
In his rooms, not even sure what bed he’s on, it could be PJ’s, it probably is PJ’s. They knock over the lamp, trip over the armchair, get caught in tangle after tangle of clothes and arms and fingers, clinging and clutching. “All the shades of blue in your eyes,” Dan whispers against Phil’s hip. “All of the blue. Sometimes I think I don’t want to see any colour except that. On your desk and in your hair.”
Phil thinks of shreds of confetti, sapphire marbles in a tip jar, a journal handed to him, but, Phil, your blue aesthetic, am I misreading the signals. He thinks of shards of indigo pebbles amongst hay, stacks of turquoise erasers, no, you’re reading all of them, the signals, he thinks and thinks, his fingers curled into Dan’s hair, and then he doesn’t think of much else at all.
--4. slow show--
Phil says, “Dan.” Dan nods. “You keep waking me up.”
“Do I? Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Phil unfolds his legs from under him, he’s in his usual chair by Thor’s pen, Thor himself is curled up, tail to nose, in a pile of hay. Dan is stood beside him, kneeling very slightly, a blue file under one arm. His hand, when he pulls it away, still hovers somewhere near Phil’s temples, strands of Phil’s hair still clinging to his fingers. Phil clears his throat. “Morning.”
“It’s afternoon,” Dan replies.
Phil casts a guilty look over to the meerkat enclosure. Billy glares back.
“You’re coming on a date,” Dan says. His voice is careful, like he’s delicately stripping emotion from each word as he says it. “With me and PJ and Chris.” All the tone that he’d repressed somehow explodes on Chris. “PJ just told me and then he said that I should come over and tell you the plans or whatever.”
“Then tell me,” Phil replies, sadly. “The plans.”
Dan manages to say, “I” and then to follow it up with, “I don’t want to. That’s immature, right? I genuinely don’t want to.” He says, “I thought,” and, “Yesterday,” and Phil can only duck his head from the sound of it. “I thought that, what we talked about, yesterday. What you said. What I said.”
Phil, very carefully, says, “What about it?”
Dan makes a horrified little noise. “I. It’s only- I meant what-.” He stops. “The plans. Tonight, at seven. We’ll come back and get you. PJ says that gives you time to have a nap or whatever. He thought that you would- he thought you would need a nap, because you always- and then, I guess, you can meet Chris.” Phil is about to echo I guess when Dan, suddenly, says, “Why? Why are you- you want to date someone? If that’s- you can just tell me, if that’s the-”
“You’re dating someone,” Phil points out. “And, I can’t, I can’t come to work and do nothing else, and sleep, and wait, and sleep, and-”
“Wait for what?” It’s a question with such an obvious answer that Phil can’t even meet Dan’s eyes (as much as he tries not to do that anyway). “If you just-”
Phil says, “Seven? You said seven. I’ll be here.”
“But,” Dan begins, but there’s no apparent end to the sentence. But. He straightens up to his full height. “Fine. Okay. We’ll meet you here, by the pen. Also, I, um, got you this.” He holds out the blue file. “Or, I researched this for you.”
Phil takes it. “Researched?”
The file is a series of emails and printed web pages on how to safely keep a meerkat as a pet. There are photos and charts and then lists, in Dan’s awful handwriting, of things that Phil might find useful. you need to make sure he has things to dig. he’ll scent-mark all over you and your flat. he’ll be aggressive with guests and people he doesn’t know. we should make a video about this. make sure he can see outside.
Phil says, slightly awestruck, “Thanks Dan, this is-”
“It’s nothing, we just had it all lying around, I didn’t even do anything.”
He’ll get clingy, really clingy, with people that he likes, and he’ll be really selective about them. If he likes someone he’ll be all soft and cute, but if you’re not around he’ll cry a lot. Like he’s in pain.
“He’ll only be happy when I’m around?” Phil gives Thor a worried look. Thor continues to sleep.
“He’ll only be happy when you’re around,” Dan says. “Like you’re the centre of the universe and everything else just orbits around you but you don’t even notice. You miss all of the signals even when he thinks he’s being obvious. He just won’t be sure how to make you properly understand it.”
Phil carries on looking at Thor. To look away from Thor means looking at Dan and he can’t do that right now. He pulls his sleeves over his hands. “It sounds like Thor is much deeper than I realised.”
“I wasn’t talking about Thor,” Dan replies.
Phil tugs his sleeves right over his knuckles to hide the trembling in his fingers. “Thanks. For the information and stuff. I’ll read it all.”
you need to learn what his calls mean. they use different calls for different things. i’ll take the leaflets and listen and pretend. he’ll look to the sky when he’s frightened.
“You’re going to go to sleep?” Dan asks. Phil finally turns to look back at him. Dan falters a little, Phil instantly thinks he’s giving away too much in his eyes, he does that, without realising. “I’m guessing.”
“I probably will.” Phil suddenly wants another Dan, one that he can actually look at and touch and say honest things to. He’s going to go to sleep and think about black knit sweaters and white suits and confusing flat layouts and someone who yells about how much he loves Phil (at the top of his lungs, in shrieks and shouts, and in the quietness of a forehead pressed to his shoulder when they’re watching tv). “I’m tired.”
Dan touches his forehead again. “You always are.”
--5. the dream synopsis--
“That’s my academic diary.”
PJ says, “Phil. This isn’t an academic diary. This is just a whole load of, I don’t know, poetry about Dan Howell. Stories about Dan Howell. Things with-”
“They’re dreams. They’re my dreams.”
“You dream about Dan Howell?” PJ laughs. “You don’t see enough of him during your office hours? You don’t email or text him enough, so he has to be in your dreams too?” He shakes the journal, two stray notes fall out. “This makes no sense, Phil, I’m sorry. I genuinely did read it, all of it, but it doesn’t- what are you trying to tell me exactly?”
Phil picks the notes up. They say i don’t write anything that i don’t mean and not as happy as i would be with you in handwriting that isn’t his. Scrawling lower case with no punctuation. He frowns at them. PJ is still talking, still gesticulating with the journal, scattering notes everywhere. “I don’t even know what I’m trying to tell you PJ, I just wanted you to see, so that you’d know something about what’s going on.”
“How long have you been having these dreams?”
“But term only started three months ago, you only met him three months ago.”
“I told you it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Then why tell me at all?”
Dan had texted, this morning, a stream of did someone dream you did i dream you i feel like someone dreamt someone here and you can’t have dreamt me because why would you. no one like you would dream someone like me. i know why you didn’t want me to come in your flat and i understand but also can i see you again. we don’t have to go to your flat you could come to mine.
You live in HALLS Dan Phil had replied. That’s a terrible idea.
why? you never came to my halls before.
PJ says, “I get that I misjudged this, whatever this is and I’m sorry about that, but, Phil, this whole fantasising about being in some perfect version of the 1920s or in flats next door to each other or-”
Phil says, “A perfect version of the 1920s?”
“Yeah, all sepia toned and Hollywood and stuff. Tweed suits and gas lamps and coffee houses. Like all the characters are going to break into song or have a huge dance number.”
“They’re not characters.”
“Maybe not. But none of these things change the fact that he’s a student. You don’t have to try and invent worlds where you’re together.”
“That’s.” Phil watches the journal, still fluttering around in PJ’s hands. “That’s what you think this is. A load of daydreams. Rose tinted things that I’ve made up.”
“It’s.” PJ stops, softens his tone. “If that’s what helps you deal with this then, it’s okay.”
“They’re not stories, PJ.”
“I’m not judging you,” PJ says, and he really isn’t, Phil knows that, PJ’s a good person. “And it probably does help, doesn’t it? And I’m flattered that I’m in all of them, and they’re pretty imaginative, so if this is what you’re doing to try and get around what’s happening, then, hey, carry on. I’m absolutely not judging you.”
i always wanted you to. you should come now.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil clears his throat and calls, “Dan.”
Dan instantly replies, from right next to his doors, like he’d been waiting for Phil to read the note, the sound of Phil on his balcony. “The mirrors.”
Phil says, “Yes.”
“I don’t like them. You can look in a mirror and you’ll still be there but the background can change, you know? Like, you’re still there, but instead of your room there’s suddenly, like, a vet’s office, or something that looks like your uni halls, or-”
Phil says, “A vet’s office?”
“It doesn’t make any sense. I told you it wouldn’t.”
“The background to your reflection changes?”
“I sometimes felt like it did.”
“That’s not possible.” Phil pokes at the dead leaves of his spirea. Despite having been clinging to life since Phil put it on the balcony it has now, suddenly, starting shedding blue petals. He catches one. “You can’t be in more than one place.”
“Sometimes I wish that I was somewhere else though.”
“I don’t think that works. Not outside of stories.”
“If it did then where would you go?”
“Where would I go?” Phil continues to scatter petals. A duplex flat in London with too many stairs and sharp corners and two kitchens and the boy who lives, amazingly, somewhere in the centre of it all in a moon themed bedroom (a boy who Phil misses with the sort of dramatic longing that comes when you pine after dreams). “To your balcony.”
Dan says, “Phil,” with fake shock, but he sounds pleased. Phil knows what Dan trying to disguise genuine emotions sounds like. “Not, like, Japan, or New York, or-”
“No. Just your balcony.”
“That would be a waste of a wish.”
“Would it? I don’t think so.”
--6. dan howell--
Phil had thought Dan had forgotten about the we should do something about this now. Dan tends to do that (we should tell everyone after the tour, we should go back to Japan, we could just do a video about it, do you think, and then just let it be out in the open) and they’re always ideas that Phil clings onto but Dan lets fall away.
Dan has titled each individual column. Student!Me. Vet!Me. Coffee!Me. Hipster!Me. Balcony!Me. Phil almost says it’s not all about you, Dan, but it is, of course it is. There’s nothing else that anything would ever be about. He says, “Hipster you?”
“The cool 1920s one. I wish I could see that, it’s a strong look.”
Despite all the fake casualness, the spreadsheet itself is pretty detailed. Phil takes it into the lounge and reads it cradled on his lap. Dan, apparently, has a lot of feelings about the university dreams in particular. It has the most notes, the most lines underneath it. Phil says, “You really like the student one.”
“Well, if he really is like nineteen-year-old me then I feel bad for him. Constantly trying to get your attention. I know what that’s like. And you, probably, saying I was too young and not really interested.”
“I never said that,” Phil says. Not the first part anyway.
“I just remember trying so hard to get your attention. That’s all.”
“You had my attention. Instantly.”
“It wasn’t always obvious.”
That was probably the case, but Dan, at nineteen, had been like looking into the sun for too long and being dazzled. Phil was usually confused as to why anyone would want to spend a prolonged amount of time with him, but he was especially confused that Dan, with his earrings and his dimples and his smile and his skin tight Abercrombie sweaters, would want to even give him a second glance. The third through to hundreth glances had seemed impossible. Phil had shown someone in university a photo of Dan, near the start, and they had said wow, isn’t he pretty with an undercurrent of why he is talking to you. Phil has never quite gotten over the feeling of turning, looking over his shoulder, wondering who Dan is looking at because it couldn’t be him.
Dan adds, “It’s lucky that I was always obvious. Otherwise this probably would never have happened.”
Phil says, “This,” under his breath and scrolls up and down the columns. For every Dan there is a Phil, he thinks. Counsellor!Me. MeerkatOwner!Me. Barista!Me. 1920s!Me. Balcony!Me. A Phil confused by the attention of someone who, surely, had other options available. A Phil watching and waiting. A Phil trying to help Dan decide what he wants. A Phil who loves Dan so much that he thinks that he can’t be real. A Phil trying to get Dan to step outside.
They’re all him, in every way. He’s been every single one of them, at one time or another, and doesn’t know what any of it means.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil says, “Dan!”
Dan smiles. “Phil.”
They both wait, in the silence where Phil should really be making a coffee but he can’t bring himself to look away from the curl. It looks like Dan straightened all of his hair except for that one part, the one section that Phil has poked and pulled more times on (and off) camera than he can count. A curl that belongs to a different Dan, somewhere. He says, “Your hair.”
“What about it?” Dan looks confused, starts patting down his fringe (no! Phil thinks. No, please leave it there), not stopping until the curl is gone, flattened into submission. “Is that better?”
Phil says, “Yes,” but thinks No. He takes one of the cardboard cups ready for Dan’s drink. “You’re here late.” He’d been about to close up. PJ has already left. The blanket on the staff room sofa is ready and waiting for him. No one even pretends that Phil actually goes home anymore. He writes DAN very carefully but doesn’t even move towards the coffee machine.
Dan, hesitantly, says, “I thought we could take a walk again. I mean, we didn’t really take a walk before, we just, like, walked out of the shop and then back inside. But I thought that we could- I don’t know, walk around inside the shop instead?”
Phil instantly knocks over a display of muffins. Inside the shop. The rooms above the shop. He’d asked PJ, casually, hey, what’re in the rooms above here? It’s a big house, right? and PJ had shrugged and said don’t know really, I only stay down here. Is there a room full of mirrors, a room with a piano. He sends a whole stream of pastries off the counter and says, “We could do that.”
Dan watches a croissant bounce across the floor. “I don’t even want the coffee.”
Phil puts the cup back into the stack. Someone tomorrow will accidentally get a DAN cup and have no idea why. “Okay.”
“I actually find caramel macchiatos too sweet.”
“But you order them,” Phil says. “Every time.”
“Someone told me they were their favourite, once, and I think I started drinking them so we had something in common. I liked buying them in pairs.”
“They’re my favourite. That person has good taste.”
“Probably.” Dan shrugs. “I don’t really remember much about them.”
Phil changes the door sign from open to closed, checks the locks on all the windows. “You just remember the type of coffee that they like?”
“Not just that. Other things, like, I kept a list of things that they were into so that I would have something to talk to them about. The coffee just sort of turned into a habit.” Dan pulls awkwardly at his fringe. “I wanted them to like me. A lot.”
“You don’t have to pretend to like coffee for me to like you,” Phil says. It’s easy, because he says it when he’s not looking at Dan, the words tumble from his mouth as he finds the staff only door that he’s never been through, the door that leads to what Chris calls the above. “I liked you anyway.”
Dan appears at his side. “I hope you don’t really mean that past tense.”
The door isn’t locked. “I don’t mean it past tense. I mean it everywhere, every tense.” There’s a staircase. Phil brushes the side of his hand against Dan’s, little finger to thumb. “Shall we take a walk then?”
Dan says, “Up there?” but he’s already stepping forward. The stairs, thankfully, are empty of things that could be tripped over, even though Phil manages it anyway, catching his foot on a patch of moonlight. “Be careful. You have to be quiet.”
Phil regains his balance. “But he’s right down on the bottom floor.”
Dan says, “What?” with his hand on the bannister. He shakes his head, not at Phil and not at himself, but at something. “What’s up here? Do you use it for storage?”
“I don’t know. I thought we could explore.””
They’re make it to the second floor. The doors to one set of rooms, his rooms, Phil’s mind helpfully supplies, is half open, throwing light out onto the staircase. Dan stops. Phil does too. Dan moves like he wants to go inside, Phil, almost on instinct, grabs his wrist.
Dan looks down. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure if we should go in there.”
Dan steps forward, taking Phil with him on momentum, and pushes the door fully open. “It’s okay. It’s just-” he pauses. “A ridiculous amount of mirrors.”
Phil looks. There are mirrors on every inch of wall space. Ornate mirrors with huge frames, tall mirrors, small oval mirrors, one that looks like the surface of the moon, a small square of mirror, thin columns of mirrors. All passing the moonlight onto each other until they cast it out of the windows and through the door, silvery and almost watery in the air.
Dan, reflected thirty times over, looking up and around and every direction on once, says, “Wow. Does this room belong to someone really vain, or is it just-”
“I’m not sure if I like it in here.” Phil steps backwards, towards the door. “I don’t really-”
Dan nods. Phil’s hand is still on his wrist, he lets Phil pull him out of the doorway. One of his reflections, in the moon mirror, suddenly looks like he has waves right through his hair. “It’s fine, we can keep walking up, like, to the servants’ quarters, or whatever’s at the top. You don’t-” he watches Phil firmly slam the door. “Are you okay?”
Phil thinks is there a piano on the fifth floor. He wants to find out and also absolutely doesn’t want to know. Dan’s coat, crushed under his fingers, almost feels like silk. Why are all his clothes so expensive. “I need a notebook.”
“Do you have one? That I can use, or keep, really, I’ll need to keep it.”
Dan touches Phil’s forehead, very gently, sweeping under Phil’s fringe. “Phil. Wake up.”
“I’m awake. I just need to write something down.”
“It’s just a room of mirrors, it’s fine, there’s no reason-”
“It’s what’s in the mirrors.”
“There was nothing in the mirrors,” Dan says, bemused. “There was just you and me.”
Dan has a notebook in his sensible law student satchel, leather bound in bright blue. When Dan hands it over Phil suddenly has no idea what he wanted to write.
--1. absent treatment--
“I have to do something about this now,” Phil tells her, not even saying hello, not even explaining properly. “The dreams.” He holds out the file. “I’ve written everything I can think of.”
Louise looks at the file but doesn’t take it. “Coffee, piano, vet, university and together.”
“And.” Phil points to himself. “This one.”
Louise raises an eyebrow. “This one?”
“It could be a dream. Theoretically. Couldn’t it? They all could be.”
It feels like one, sometimes. He’d woken up this morning with Dan wrapped around him, his face turned into the softness of Dan’s hair, like it was something that they were used to, sleeping together, like they did it all the time. It didn’t feel like the first night at all. More like they’d been apart from each other for a while and had suddenly been reunited. Like when you go to the Isle of Man without me Dan mumbled. And then, I don’t know what that meant.
“They can’t all be,” Louise says. “I know they can’t. One of them has to be right. But, you don’t think that it’s here anymore?”
I don’t even know where the Isle of Man is exactly Dan continued. I just know that sometimes you go there and I’m sad. And Phil had meant to say that he didn’t really know exactly where the Isle of Man was either but he somehow had said I miss you the whole time that I’m there. You know that. And we talk all the time, and Skype and. What even is Skype. Whatever it was Dan said Skype isn’t enough and then a surprised little gasp, like someone else had been speaking all along.
“Do you think this is too perfect?” Phil asks.
Louise frowns. “What exactly? Here? London? I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I don’t understand what I mean either.”
There’s more lavender tea, more rosebud china. When Dan left, for a wedding, he touched Phil’s cheek and released a stream of bluebell petals from his sleeve (they must be from before, from the last wedding, they must have got caught in my coat). One falls now, from Phil’s collar into his cup.
He tells Louise, “I went back to Zils Street,” and watches her teacup rattle on its saucer.
“You went to his rooms,” she guesses. “And then what?” Phil flushes. “I don’t mean that, I mean-”
“He’s on the very top floor. Our client was on the second, remember. The door was open but I couldn’t see in. The mirrors could be there still, I didn’t look, but, we didn’t like the mirrors anyway, they were unsettling, in an odd way. Do they mean anything? The mirrors? Did we ask you?”
They may have done but he doesn’t think they would have treated Louise’s reply with the right amount of respect. She purses her lips, too polite to mention this. “As I said then, there’s only two things that I would use mirrors for, and that’s making wishes and changing your surroundings. Did you wish for anything, when you were looking into the mirrors?”
The mirrors reflected him back at himself, thirty times. He saw the tired blue of his eyes over and over until each of his reflections frowned worriedly at the other. He hadn’t looked at them for very long. “No, I didn’t.”
“Not even in your head? Like a daydream?”
“I don’t daydream,” Phil says. “I mean, I never used to daydream.”
“You didn’t want to be somewhere else? You didn’t wish that you were with someone else?”
“You mean Dan?” Louise nods. “I couldn’t have wished for him, I didn’t even know he existed until he was in my dreams.”
“Well, maybe someone else did.”
Dan had watched the petals tumble from his sleeve and said and Phil thought that must be true, like someone else had told him it was important. That would be a good signal if I remembered. He scattered blue everywhere on their walk from Phil’s rooms to the separation point at Seven Dials, where he’d repeated a really good signal and touched Phil on his arm, just above his elbow, something instead of a kiss (Phil felt it, right down to his toes, as if it actually was one).
“He knows?” Louise asks. “That you dream about him.”
“We dream,” Phil replies, “About each other.”
--2. epistolary romance--
Dorothy hasn’t left any further messages but there are a few texts from PJ, asking if he ever plans on coming back into the office again. The texts are signed PJ, your best friend and business partner, remember me?
Phil calls him, something he never does, and PJ answers with a startled, “Philip! Speaking on the phone! Is there an emergency, do you need help?”
“No and yes.”
“Yes you need help?” PJ sounds concerned.
Phil stops. Does he need help? Can PJ help? He has no idea what he’s asking for help with. “It’s the trailer,” he says, which is technically true. “The Dorothy Clark trailer.”
“You’re still working on that? Phil, it’s beyond help and she paid up front. Do what you can with it and just sign it off. You’re not a miracle worker.”
“But what do you think it means?”
“I have no idea. And we’ve edited some pretty weird stuff in the past. But, it’s bothering you I can do it, we can say it was you, she wouldn’t know.” PJ lets the silence sit for a moment, only the sound of him tapping away at his keyboard in the background. “Was that all? Is that everything that you needed help with? Is that a piano?”
The music is suddenly very loud, Dan could be in the same room as Phil, playing directly into the phone. “It’s my neighbour.”
“Someone finally moved into the flat next door? Tell them to play something happier.”
“Was that really everything? There’s nothing else?”
“No. That’s all. I’ll come into the office soon, I promise.”
PJ laughs. “It’s fine. I’m used to my own company by now.”
There are blue petals all over Phil’s balcony, too much to ever have come off one dying spirea. He throws a handful to Dan’s side and gives Hello Kitty a note that says My friend PJ thinks you should play something happier. The piano doesn’t stop.
--6. dan howell--
“I’m not,” Phil mumbles. “I’m not.” He kicks out with one foot. “I broke the fort.”
“I can rebuild it.”
“I want to build a fort around us forever. We could live in it then, just us.”
Dan laughs, tired and fond. “I’d have to find a sturdier material than pillows in that case.”
“You were playing the piano and it was sad.”
“I’m sorry.” Dan moves closer. Phil moves his hand from the duvet to his hip. “I’ll play something happier tomorrow. Once I’ve built the fort.”
“Just for us.”
“Of course.” Dan sweeps his hand up across Phil’s forehead, pushes his fringe up. “Just for us. Go back to sleep.”
Phil does so.
--4. slow show--
“You don’t want to go?” Phil asks, sitting up.
Dan says, “No,” without hesitation. “That’s the honest answer. I don’t want to go. I don’t want you to go. I want to stay here.”
“In the enclosure?” Phil still feels half asleep. He hasn’t even changed his clothes, he still has the same red sweater and black jeans that he’d woke up in this morning. Dan, on the other hand, looks like he’s ready to be photographed, to be looked at, to have Phil stare at him across a restaurant table for the next two hours. “Should I change? I feel like I should change. Is it a fancy place? It’s just, you look good, and I-”
“Also look good. I mean, you, um, also look good. You don’t need to change.”
Phil’s sweater is half covered in strands of Thor’s fur. There’s a few small tears from his claws. The red and black print makes him look like a ladybird. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure,” Dan replies, but he’s not even looking at Phil. “Last chance to say you don’t want to go.”
“I haven’t even said that I want to go.”
Phil doesn’t say much that he really wants to, really, not here. He wants lots of things (more things than he doesn’t want, in any case) but the whole aching list could just be simplified down to him and Dan. Just a sentence. Dan, here, with him.
He doesn’t change his sweater. PJ, when they get outside, says, “That took a while,” and then a startled, “Do you need time to change?” PJ is wearing a blazer in a dark velvet shade that looks like it matches Dan’s, a little. Phil feels the standard tug in his chest, not quite on his heart anymore, his heart is, by this point, too crumbled to have anything left to feel. We should be matching he looks at Dan, the sparkles of his jacket. We should be.
“What took so long?” PJ says, brightly and also not brightly. His smile is too wide. “You were in there a while.”
“I was asleep.”
“When are you not?” PJ replies.
PJ stays short-tempered through the entire taxi ride into town, fussing and maneuvering them around so that he sits in the middle of the back seat, separating Phil from Dan, and then walking too slowly to the restaurant itself, leaving Dan to try and fall into step with him, letting Phil walk upfront on his own. Phil hears a whispered, “What’s up with you?” but can’t hear PJ’s reply. He should be walking with them too, he supposes, it’s the polite thing to do, but Dan-and-PJ make him lose all his manners, make him not polite. “You can walk with Phil if you want,” PJ hisses, just as they pass the fountain. It’s been illuminated in blue, glowing ultraviolet, the surface of the water is like the reflection of a mirror that Phil frowns at himself in. The frown says why did you agree to this why did you think this was a good idea.
Phil instantly recognises Chris. He says his name before PJ does, in the middle of crossing the street, and PJ, surprised, says, “How did you know?” while Dan’s face settles into a carefully neutral expression. Chris looks exactly as Phil remembered, so much so that he wonders if this is the wrong dream somehow.
Chris shows no sign of recognising Phil back and high-fives him instead of shaking his hand. Phil says, “You’re the same!” and has no possible way of explaining what he means, but Chris is, apparently, of course, the type of person who hears odd things, nods sagely and says, “Yes I am.”
PJ fusses again with the seating arrangements in the restaurant itself, making sure that they sit in the correct pairs and that he’s opposite Phil. Chris folds his napkin into a swan and says, “I like your jumper. It looks like a ladybird.”
“Thanks. That’s the whole reason I bought it, I think.”
“It’s cool. I like ladybirds.” Chris crushes the napkin swan and constructs a perfect rose. “PJ said you look after the meerkats?”
“Look after is a pretty generous term. I look after one of them really. The others don’t like me very much. I always get attached to at least one of them, whatever I’m looking after, they just don’t usually make very good pets. But you probably understand, PJ said that you work at a park too.”
Chris flattens the rose with his palm. “I do. I just don’t really get attached to anything.”
Across the table PJ is smiling encouragingly. Dan is reading the same page of the menu over and over, not looking at anyone. Their waitress, when she arrives, says, “Hello, I’m Dodie, and I’ll be your- oh, hi Phil! Nice to see you!”
Phil says, “I’m sorry?”
“Oh dear. Memory’s not so good in this one. And you’re sat in completely the wrong place.” She taps the side of her head. “Maybe next time. Have you worked it out yet?”
“What to order!”
Phil hasn’t even looked at the menu. Dan, who has apparently memorised it, orders first so Phil just says, “The same.”
“The same,” Dodie repeats. “And whatever our bluest drink is, right?”
Phil, helpless to say anything else, says, “Right.”
Chris turns out to a be a pretty decent blind date companion (if it actually constitutes as a blind date when you recognise the other person from a dream). Phil knows this because he looks at nothing but Chris for the entire dinner, turned right in his chair so he doesn’t need to be looking at Dan-and-PJ. Chris folds and refolds his napkin into a dozen different shapes and makes Phil guess what they are. He tries to make a meerkat and fails. They like a lot of the same things, have the same sense of humour. PJ smiles the entire time as if it’s completely his doing. In another time, possibly, Phil would think this was going really well. He’d maybe go on a second date with Chris, a third and a fourth and a fifth. Chris shapes a little pile of napkin with paws and says, “An otter! You have those too right?”
“We had brothers,” Phil says. “They slept holding hands.” And when I met Dan for the first time I was so overwhelmed that I nearly fell into their pool. They used to stack little plastic cups and Dan thought it was the most adorable thing he’d ever seen and also that it was so cute that he couldn’t look at it. “They were sick a lot and they’d only take medicine from me.”
Chris says, “Are they still there? Can I see them?” He touches Phil’s shoulder, just slightly, jokingly almost, a little scuff of fingertips. “Could-”
Dan spills his wine everywhere, watches it spread to almost every corner of the table, and says, “Sorry. I’m really sorry.” When he looks at Phil it’s the first time he’s actually looked at Phil since they came into the restaurant and he’d become suddenly occupied with the menu, the wine list, one patch of wall just over PJ’s head. “I can clean it up, I can-”
They all end up cleaning, the napkin otter is sacrificed to the cause (Chris pats its fabric head in sympathy). The wine is the golden colour of caramel, and almost the same consistency. Dan says, “I’m sorry,” and Phil says, “It’s okay, Dan, it’s really okay,” watching the steady pink blush fade across Dan’s jaw.
Chris watches it too and says, “Wow, okay, right,” and pats at Phil’s back. “I get it.”
They don’t get dessert. PJ’s forced sunniness starts collapsing somewhere around the wine clean up and, now that he’s looked at Phil Dan seems to be unable to stop. It’s not fair Phil tries to tell him, tries to convey with his eyes. You’re not being fair. But he knows that his eyes are probably conveying something completely different. Chris says, “We could get dessert,” to Phil. “If you wanted to.”
“Just you?” Dan asks, very carefully, like every word is a trap he’s trying to avoid. “The two of you.”
Chris raises his eyebrows at Phil, a question, an I-want-to-talk-to-you. Phil wonders if he’s been remembered all of a sudden, if something he said has reminded Chris of why they know each other, why Phil knew him straight away. Phil says, “That sounds good.”
Dan makes a noise that he possibly intended to sound nonchalant and unbothered but comes out sad and distressed, a slow release of a sigh. He and PJ leave first, getting into a taxi while Chris and Phil wait in the doorway. PJ waves to them. Dan does not. Dodie, holding the door open, says, “This isn’t right at all,” and Phil thinks it’s not, he knows it’s not, he watches until the taxi disappears at the curve of the street and whatever fine powder his poor heart has settled into gives one last jolt.
Chris, later, in an ice cream parlour that’s decorated in only pastel turquoise, says, “So, he’s in love with you.”
Phil, spoon halfway into an electric blue sorbet, says, “What?”
“That’s fine.” Chris shrugs. “I’m sort of in love with PJ.”
“A double-date where we were both with the wrong people. It’s what dreams are made of.”
Phil says, “I’m sorry Chris,” because he feels like he should.
“Hey, don’t say sorry, I had a good time still. You’re pretty cool. I could have done without all the death glares and the feeling like he was going to stab me with his bread knife but, hey, I get where he’s coming from. I was giving death glares right back.”
“He’s not in love with me,” Phil says.
“Then you’re misreading every sign that he’s giving you.” Chris frowns down at his ice cream. “Have we met, by the way? I was going to ask you earlier. I thought we might have done.”
Phil pulls at one of the tears in his sweater, leftover from one of Thor’s claws digging in as he tries to get as close to Phil as possible. Meerkats are clingy, really clingy, selective about who they like. If that person isn’t around they’ll cry a lot. You miss all of the signals even when they think they’re being obvious. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh.” Chris looks confused. “I thought.”
I’m not talking about Thor.
--6. dan howell--
“The dog calendar?” Dan says, mournfully. “But that was a good day! It was the best day.”
It was. It had been. Dan in a variety of soft pastel outfits, and the gentle sweetness of his voice when he spoke to the dogs. Holding a tiny puppy in his huge hand and trying to bounce her awake. Touching two pomeranian noses together and saying look, Phil, they’re in love while Phil tried to pick the best moment to suggest that they should get a dog, when could they get a dog, even though they’d had that conversation before, numerous times, and Dan would always say no not yet, soon because a dog was a commitment, a symbol of something, like they weren’t even talking about something as simple as a dog. Phil, sometimes, thinks that he’s a few steps ahead of Dan, on certain things. The thought, usually pushed to the very back of his mind, appears without him wanting it to.
“It was a good day,” Dan repeats. “Wasn’t it?”
“Yes!” Phil says, sounding instantly protesting to his own ears. “Of course it was.”
“But, what, they started then? I don’t even remember anything about it except the dogs.”
(“Maybe”, Phil said, too pleading, too hopeful, emotions that make Dan shut off completely. “We could get a dog soon. Martyn could look after it when we’re on tour and it would get us both out walking and stuff and it would be company, when you’re away, and when I’m away, and we could-”
“The company isn’t the thing,” Dan replied and Phil really wished that he hadn’t picked the December shoot for this conversation. The snow suits and the ski boots. Dan was wearing a thick knitted hat that almost obscured his eyes. “You know that’s not the thing.”
“You do. Don’t do this, don’t pretend like you don’t- it’s, like you said, it’s the walking it, your brother looking after it, the whole thing of us getting a dog, what it represents, the finality of-”
“We’ve moved,” Phil said, calmly, “To three different flats together.”
“That’s different from us adopting an actual living creature, Phil. A dog is too-”
Dan stopped. Phil stopped. “Too what?”
Dan looked pained. “It doesn’t matter. It only matters that-”
Phil supplied, “Too obvious. It’s too obvious. We’re always too obvious, Dan, that ship has-”
“One day I’ll get you twenty dogs. Thirty dogs. We can have an entire sanctuary of them. I’ll get you a zoo, if you want.”
“One day,” Dan said. “I promise.”)
Dan finishes, “I mean, the dogs were really distracting.”
Phil says, “But we-” but stops. We talked about getting a dog on that day. It was the last time we’ve talked about it in three months. You don’t remember. Dan has a talent for pretending to forget conversations that he hasn’t enjoyed but then bringing them up, in perfect clarity, weeks, months, years later. But, the conversation hadn’t been about getting a dog at all, not really. He can admit that. The dog, whatever orange fluffball it would have ended up being, is just a representation of something else.
“It was in Kensington, right? In that Victorian house. It had a balcony.”
Dan would remember the balcony. It was his favourite thing about the new place, maybe the main reason why they were renting it, his least favourite thing about the old place, the number one reason why he loved the Manchester place so-
Phil sits up straight. Dan sits up with him, eyebrow raised. “Zils Street. That’s what it was called.”
“We could go back there?” Dan suggests. “Just to see.”
Phil says, “Just to see.”
They’ve rebuilt the pillow fort, with extra enforcements (all of the cushions from both lounges, the duvet from the other bedroom). It’s impossible to move anywhere when they’re in bed now, other than further into each other. Phil would like to build it higher, to give it a roof, to properly shut them away from the outside world. One day. Dan leans over and pats the pillow wall at Phil’s side. “There we go. You definitely can’t go wandering away from me now.”
“As if that would ever happen,” Phil says.
(“One day when?” Phil had replied back but Dan had suddenly developed selective hearing or the knit of his hat was too thick to let sound through because he said nothing. The dressing room had a lot of mirrors. Phil saw the disappointment on his face reflected back at him. Thirty times over. Dan must have been able to see it too. One day when).
--5. the dream synopsis--
Dan’s room number is written next to his name but his handwriting is so bad that Phil can’t make it out. He texts Room number?
He’s always surprised by how quickly Dan replies. why are you here.
seriously are you here.
Phil replies. I’m downstairs and I can’t read your handwriting.
you should know how to read my handwriting by now i leave you enough notes.
its 2009 obviously.
Phil would have known the room anyway (obvious how?). It’s the only door on the entire floor without a cheery “hi!” or “come on in!” sign hanging on it, the only one with no posters, just the door numbers. 2009. Phil knocks once and has only just lifted his hand to knock a second time when Dan throws the door open. “Phil.”
“Dan,” Phil says.
“I can’t believe you- someone could have seen you.”
“No one sees me except you.”
Dan takes hold of Phil’s still raised fist and pulls him forward leaning behind him to close the door. The room is tiny but Phil knew it would be, knew what it would look like, a box with a single bed, a desk, a shelf, like doll’s house furniture. Dan is far too big for the space, for any space. Phil swallows and Dan tracks the movement with his eyes, up and down Phil’s throat. “It’s not too much anymore?”
“I said almost too much.”
“But it’s not?”
“I think too much isn’t always a negative thing. If it’s too much of something that you like then I don’t know if it can be too much. I don’t know why I’m not letting myself have this.”
Dan smiles. “You like me.”
“I like you,” Phil says. “So much.”
“That I like you? I’m the most sure I’ve ever been about anything.”
“I mean about, your job, and all of-”
“I don’t care.” Phil is through with looking over his shoulder, wondering who else Dan could be looking at, trying to keep him at arms length when it was inevitable, coming close to ruining potential through his own insecurities. Dan is here, Dan isn’t looking anywhere else. Phil kisses him.
Dan, at nineteen (and twenty-six actually), always kissed back like it was the last time he’d ever get to do it, like someone would walk in on them at any moment. Carefully and quickly. His hands fluttering and shaking on Phil’s shoulders while his heart fluttered and shook against Phil’s chest. Phil’s hands are shaking too, his fingers trying to twist Dan’s hair into curls. “I care about you,” he says. “You’re the only thing. I don’t care what anyone’s going to say, or any of the comments, it’s just you.” Dan makes noises, high in his throat, noises that Phil tries to catch or, failing that, make louder. “I don’t care. You shouldn’t care either.”
“Oh my god,” Dan says. “We have to- you can make it to the bed, right? You can- we should-”
“The bed?” Phil licks a stripe, right up the front of Dan’s neck. “Across this giant room?”
They hit the desk and the chair (and most of the wall) on the way, but they make it.
--6. dan howell--
The ground floor appears to be a nursery that’s just letting the children out for lunch. A steady stream of parents and toddlers pass them. Phil doesn’t pay much attention until he looks back up at the entrance and sees, coming down the steps with a little girl on one arm, Mr. Howard.
He looks happy, the little girl has bouncing golden ringlets and is dressed all in green. She waves excitedly to Phil who realises, too late, that he has frozen in the middle of the pavement. She yells, “Found me!” and waves. “Found me!”
Dan happily waves back. “Hello!”
Mr. Howard says, “Hello!” and then, “Do we know you?”
“You found me!” the little girl repeats. Phil realises, in horror, that he doesn’t remember her name. They’d never used her name. Everyone called her she in reverential tones. He must have been told once but the memory is gone. “Here I am!”
“There you are!” Dan chimes back.
Mr. Howard looks bemused but smiles and carries on walking. When he passes he says, politely, “Nice to meet you,” as she, Miss. Howard, waves a chubby fist at Phil and Phil only. He doesn’t move. Dan waves for both of them until they’ve disappeared around the street corner.
Dan, still looking in the direction that the Howards left, says, “We could go in?”
“We argued,” Phil says. “The last time we were here, do you remember?”
Dan thankfully doesn’t pretend not to. “We didn’t argue. We had a conversation. About getting a dog.”
“But it wasn’t about getting a dog at all.”
“We could go in,” Dan repeats. “If you wanted to.”
“It wasn’t about getting a dog. It was about us.”
“Do you want to go in or not?”
Phil crunches leaves under his feet. “We’re having two different conversations. Do you ever feel like we’re-”
“No,” Phil says. “I want to go home.”
--2. epistolary romance--
i’m terrible at the piano so no i had a terrible teacher and i can still hear her yelling at me sometimes about my technique. your plants are dying. look at my terrarium it’s thriving. do you sing to them? i’m dan by the way if we’re going to keep this up. I knew your name was phil. i wanted to open the door and say hi. you have a nice voice. can we keep doing this? i need calming from everything. i don’t really leave the house ever. you probably hear me pacing around. you know that already. how long have you lived here? it can’t have been very long.
you know that already.
i knew your name.
we should make a video about this.
“Are you understanding it now?” Dorothy asks, cheerfully, from his answerphone.
Phil wishes she wasn’t cheerful. He wishes that he could smash the wind chimes in her voice. “He’s said all of those things to me before.”
(in youtube comments. On twitter. In emails and crackling over Skype with a four second delay and in their kitchen and from one floor to the other and whispered into Phil’s ear and against Phil’s mouth and across the table while they have dinner. i’m dan by the way in his direct messages. if we’re going to keep this up. i wanted to open the door and say hi).
“Isn’t that interesting?” Dorothy chirps.
Phil says, “Is it? Is it interesting? What does it mean?”
--1. absent treatment--
“It’s just remembering,” Phil says. “That’s all. It’s not much to deal with.”
He looks at all the lights, all the trees, the other passers-by. Is it too perfect? Is it like a movie set? Is it real? The sun bounces off the river onto Dan’s hair. The city, across the Thames, looks like it’s been painted. Is it too much to deal with, the possibility that this one, here, might just be another item on a diagram, not a real life that he, Phil, had actually participated in and lived. That it’s someone’s wish.
“I’ll steal you some wedding cake,” Dan tells him. “A bigger slice this time. They’re not even eating the cake at this one, it’s just there for the photographs.”
“Just bring me the whole thing then.”
“I would. You know I would.”
They part at the cathedral. Dan fidgets for his notebook and scuffs his hand across Phil’s cheek in the action of doing so, enough so that it looks accidental. “I- I’ll come to see you. After this.”
“I’ll send PJ out.” By out, Phil actually means upstairs, to Chris’s rooms. PJ actually doesn’t seem too bothered by being politely removed from his own flat. “I’ll leave a candle, in the window.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“It’s just so that you’ll find me,” Phil says.
“I don’t need it. I’d find you anywhere.”
At some point, Phil knows, he has to go back to Zils Street, has to go back to the room with the mirrors. It’s inevitable. But also final. The mirrors are important. It all seems to have started with them. Someone wishing. Had the original tenant, the original person in that room, wished for something. Was he dreaming five different versions of himself trying to get something he didn’t have? Phil thinks, and had said to Louise, after too much lavender tea, sweet and cloying in his mouth, the ghost was just one of the other hims, wasn’t it? Another one had got through to here somehow and Louise had nodded as though that much should have been obvious.
“If I smash the mirrors,” Phil said. “All of them. Could I stay here? There’d be nowhere else to go, would there?”
Louise frowned. “I wouldn’t recommend trying that. And you want to stay here?”
“I want to stay with him. If I smashed them, would we all just stay where we were?”
“I couldn’t say.”
However much he tries to remember, to cast his dream addled mind back, Phil can’t remember making a wish in that room. In fact, he’s fairly sure that he didn’t. He couldn’t have. He didn’t have anything to wish for, nothing that he really wanted to be different, no situation that he wanted to change. The question is which one, of coffee, piano, vet, university and together, actually did.
--6. dan howell--
“The-” Dan pushes a fingertip to his spreadsheet, to the collection of smudges across his ipad screen. “The vet one. Or the coffee one. Or any of them. You think, you told the student didn’t you? That one’s sorted.”
“Is it?” Phil really hopes not.
“Probably. It sounded like it was. Why, are you going to miss student me?” Dan shakes his head. The furry wolf head pom-poms on the straps of his hat knock together. “Because, you were with student me. Irl. It’s the same.”
“It wasn’t the same.”
Dan taps at his keyboard, removes the spreadsheet to bring up the game. “Tell vet me. That’s all I’m saying. If you can. Just, tell him the truth. Think about it really hard before we go to bed, I’ll whisper it to you as we’re going to sleep.”
Phil says, “I don’t think it works like that,” but Dan tries anyway, whispers tell the vet the truth over and over into Phil’s ear. Phil tries to think of the meerkat enclosure, the vet’s office, the sparkling lines of Dan’s jacket, his fingers curled around Phil’s kneecap. The truth.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil says, “Really? After what you said? I know that you hate them now.”
He makes the drink, the DAN cup, slides it over and Dan slides it right back. “But I know that it’s your favourite now.”
Phil laughs. “You just paid, like, £5 for a drink you’re not even going to have.”
Dan hands over a folded up banknote. “I’m fine with that. I’ll come back, later. We can take another walk.”
The banknote, when he un-crumples it to put into the till, isn’t a banknote at all. It’s a small piece of blue card. It has a couples’ name in the bottom corner, old fashioned calligraphy documenting the joyous wedding of names Phil doesn’t recognise.
In the centre, in small and scrawling handwriting, is this is a signal did it work don’t miss it.
--4. slow show--
Dan , when Phil comes through the door, lights up like a candle in a window. “Phil.”
“Thor has a cold,” Phil says, even though Thor had forgotten to sneeze for the entire five minutes from the enclosure to the office. “Or, he might have a cold. He sounded like he did earlier.” He hands Thor over to Dan. “I don’t think he was very flattered by your meerkat facts either.”
Dan releases Thor from the hoodie. “No?”
“I read them to him. He huffed a lot.”
“That’s not very polite, Thor.” Dan runs a thumb under each of Thor’s ears. “I put a lot of work into that.”
Phil had thought that the truth would come with some kind of build up or impact, that he would know that it was coming and prepare himself. That he would say it just right, at the perfect moment, and it would be everything he wanted it to be. That there would be a physical confirmation that he’d actually said it. An explosion or a crash or the pop of a bubble bursting.
As it is, he says it now, in a threadbare sweater that makes him look like a ladybird, a sneezing meerkat on the table in front of him, Dan with his stethoscope in his hands. Not perfect at all. But somehow, as perfect as it’s possible to be.
“Break up with PJ,” Phil says, whispers, each word falling out of his mouth and floating its way to Dan.
Dan freezes to the spot, only his hand moving, back and forth across the soft fur of Thor’s head. “What.”
“Break up with PJ.”
Dan says, “Why?,” wonderingly.
“Because I’m in love with you,” Phil replies, and then, because it seems important to say the whole thing, “Break up with PJ because I’m in love with you.”
Dan stares, white faced but pink cheeked, mouth half open. The only noise is Thor, wheezing and huffing. Dan says, “What,” again, and, “Are you- you have to be- are you being serious, please say that-”
PJ strides through the door. “Hi Phil.”
Phil jumps back, even though he isn’t standing anywhere near Dan. “PJ.”
PJ looks at Thor. “Oh, is he sick?”
“He has a cold,” Dan says, vague hysteria to his voice. “Phil thinks he has a cold.”
“He could have. You should bring all the meerkats over, we can check them out. They’re probably not used to the winter.”
Phil says, “Now?” and PJ nods.
“I’ll come with you.” Dan starts wrapping Thor back into Phil’s hoodie. “We could-”
“No,” PJ says. “Phil can do it. You need to carry on checking Thor.”
Phil looks at Dan, expecting something like worry or confusion in his expression, but there’s not a trace of either of those things. Dan looks happy, or happy is an understatement. He looks exactly like he did when Phil saw him for the first time (not here, across a train station platform). If Phil was looking for physical confirmation that he’d actually said it then it’s there on Dan’s face. Happiness. Phil smiles back at him. “I can do it. I’ll bring them over.”
“No rush.” PJ moves to put his coat on. “You can have a nap or something before.”
Dan says, “No rush. I’ll be here.”
Thor sneezes, once, too loud to be real, and chirps.
Phil walks away from the office determined not to turn back but he lasts around twenty steps before he does and he sees, of course, Dan, in the window. One palm pressed to the glass and the other waving. Phil thinks he’s seen that before. He’s seen Dan do this before. Dan mouths later and Phil shouts, “Later!” back because it feels right, to shout, to yell, right at the top of his voice. Later.
Dan keeps waving until Phil remembers to wave back. And then he smiles.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil spills all of his milk from his cereal bowl and across the wooden flooring. “Sorry?”
“Don’t you think it is? I always thought it was.”
“Just breaking, like we can’t keep hold of it anymore.”
Dan doesn’t answer. When Phil goes to the balcony the Gatorland mug is back, along with One Direction and one with what looks like cat whiskers. They’re all covered in post-its which Dan has scrawled over, top to bottom, with meerkat facts.
you need to learn what his calls mean. they use different calls for different things.
--6. dan howell--
Dan smiles drowsily. “What happened then?” He rolls towards Phil. “Tell me.”
“I think I went back to sleep.”
Dan laughs. “Come on Phil, how often do you sleep in these things? Poor vet me, left waiting.”
“I was probably waiting for longer.”
“Why probably? You’re not always the one doing the waiting.” Dan yawns on waiting, breaking it into two syllables. “Do you need your notebook?”
Phil says, “Yes, please,” but Dan has already fallen back asleep.
--6. dan howell--
Dan says, “What?”
“Do you think I’ve lost one? Which one do you think it is?” Phil’s voice sounds wavering and desperate. It’s 5am, so he’d slept here for an hour, and then woken up here. Two times in a row. “Which one?”
Dan doesn’t look awake enough to take the question in. “I thought that’s what you wanted. For them to stop. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? It’s one down.”
“One down?” Phil cycles through his mind. Which one. He doesn’t want to lose any of them. “I don’t-”
“I’m here,” Dan says, already drifting back into sleep. Dreamless sleep or sleep with dreams he never remembers. “The real me. I’m here.”
Dreams that he never remembers. Dan with his straight hair and tired eyes, ordering coffee he doesn’t even like. Dan with his threadbare coat, his fingertips on Phil’s jaw. Dan with his earrings and his fluttering heart and his tiny dorm room. Dan in an office window waving until Phil waves back. Playing the piano, play something happier. Which one.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil is so startled that he almost drops Hello Kitty right over the side of the railing, almost drops the meerkat facts all over Manchester. He hadn’t realised Dan was there. He’d woken up in a terrible mood, a sad one, like he’d lost something. He didn’t know what. The mugs were exactly where they’d been yesterday. His flat looked like it always had. Nothing was missing. “What?”
“I’m going to count to three and then walk out. Are you there?”
“I- Do you want me to be there?”
Dan hesitates. “Yes. I’m going to start counting in-”
“Why now?” Phil asks, unsure why he’s questioning something he genuinely wants to happen but still unable to shake the melancholy haze from whatever dream he’d had. “Why today? Has something-”
“Did you wake up in a weird mood? Like, a sad one? Like you’ve misplaced something and couldn’t find it?”
“Or like I’ve misplaced something and don’t remember what that something is,” Phil replies.
Dan says, “Three.”
“I think it’s you. What I’ve misplaced. I think it’s you.”
“I’ll find you though. I’ll find you anywhere.”
Dan says, “One,” and the balcony doors open.
(this update is dedicated to lili and priscilla on twitter, with an apology for it taking so long. thanks for all the love <3)
- sorry for the delay there guys (other fics together with real life put me behind), but we're back on track! thank you for all your lovely comments so far, it means a lot <3
- disclaimer: meerkats would actually make terrible domestic pets, sorry Phil.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil says, or squeaks really, a sad explosion of a word that snaps as soon as it comes out of his mouth. “What?”
Dan has hi scrawled on a post-it, stuck to his open palm, held up to Phil (it’s ridiculously underwhelming, hi, Phil almost says it back, hi Dan. You look exactly like I imagined you would. You look like all of them at once).
Phil repeats, “What.” Not exactly a question this time. Dan has straight hair and is wearing a sequined black jacket that Phil thinks he’s seen before. Somewhere. When Dan smiles at him, awkward and unsure, he only has one dimple. Phil says, “I thought,” but has to stop because he has no idea what he thought or what he’s thinking.
“I’m sorry about this.” Dan casts his hands over the balcony, over himself, towards Phil. Sorry about everything.
“But you look like you,” Phil says.
Dan looks confused. “Who else would I look like?”
Phil repeats, “I thought,” and then all of his thoughts somehow come out at once. “I thought that you were hiding, I thought something was wrong and that’s why you don’t have any mirrors, but then you said that you didn’t like mirrors, so I wasn’t -”
“I smashed all the mirrors.”
“ - and then I didn’t really - You smashed them? All of them?”
“You said the background was changing.”
“The background was changing and I was changing with it,” Dan says.
“That makes no sense.”
“How many times would you say that you’ve said that over the past few months?”
“A lot,” Phil says, helplessly. “A lot.”
All of the sequins on Dan’s jacket are catching the sun, flashing shades of blue that are gone before Phil can put a name to them. He has a sense of having been stood on the balcony for a long time, far longer than Dan’s three-two-one countdown, but that can’t be right. It’s only been five minutes. He still has the Hello Kitty mug clasped in his hands, with all of her meerkat facts. Though now, when he comes to think of it, none of them actually say that they’re about meerkats specifically. you need to learn what his calls mean. they use different calls for different things. if you’re not around he’ll cry a lot. He doesn’t know why he assumed they were.
learn what his calls mean
“These are about me,” he tells Dan, waving the mug so violently that some of the notes fly off.
Dan says, “Everything’s about you,” like this should be an obvious fact, an answer Phil should already have known. “I’m only here because of you.”
“Why did you smash your mirrors?”
Dan watches the post-its float gently down towards the street below. “I wasn’t really thinking when I did it. And I think it broke something and now I’m stuck here.”
“Because of me?” Dan nods again but doesn’t come back up from it, stays facing the wooden slats of his balcony floor. Phil says, “But I’m the one who’s - I’m the - It’s me who’s -” he has to stop, collect his thoughts into some semblance of actual words. “It’s me who’s having the dreams.”
Dan huffs. “You think that’s just you?”
“I hoped it wasn’t. I hoped -” Phil touches the side of Dan’s face, he can just about reach, from one balcony to another, across a great divide that just about allows him to brush his fingertips at Dan’s hairline. “You look like you.”
Dan goes incredibly still under Phil’s hand (Phil had almost thought that Dan would vanish if he touched him). “I look like every version of myself. All of them mixed into one.”
Phil puts his thumb to the single dimple. “I don’t -”
“Sometimes I have an earring, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my hair is different, I think, but I can’t really see it. I wake up in suits that don’t fit me or covered in an old coat or a white jacket and everything smells like coffee and you.” He looks up at Phil and his hair is starting to curl on the tips. “I thought that I would have dreamt up something more entertaining than this.”
Phil is leaning so far forward that the railing is pressing into his waist. “What?”
“Like, I don’t know, that we’re pirates on different ships or leaders of rival armies or something. Owners of companies that hate each other but we have to pretend we’re married for some reason, I haven’t thought of why yet. I didn’t really expect just neighbours with balconies that are too close together. Have you ever seen any building in real life with balconies as near as this? You could jump right over.”
Phil’s thoughts stutter on in real life but he says, “I could. I would. I want to.” His hand is still curved around the side of Dan’s face, thumb to dimple, fingers to temple. Aside from his first sudden reaction Dan has given no further acknowledgement that it’s even happening. “And I’m the one dreaming, it’s me, and I touched everything in my flat. Yesterday. Or maybe two days before that. I touched everything and it’s real. This is real. I’m real. And you’re real.”
“We’re real,” Dan says. “We’re just in the wrong place. Or maybe we’re not real here.” He tilts his head, turning into Phil’s hand. “And why do you always assume it’s just you dreaming?”
“Do I always assume that?” Phil doesn’t wait for any kind of answer. “There’s no other way it would be. I was dreaming about you before I met you.”
“Before you met me?”
Phil casts his other hand back and forth between them, to indicate here and now. We’re meeting now. Dan’s hair is curling and there are snowflakes caught on the edges. Has it been snowing? It can’t have, the sun above is blinding. He has a tiny gold hoop in one ear (giving the people want they want Phil) and freckles and laughter lines and not enough dimples.
Dan laughs and Phil instantly thinks hey, that’s his real laugh. “Phil, do you honestly think this is the first time we’re meeting?”
Phil, honestly, says, “I don’t know.”
--3. caramel macchiato--
He blinks and the beige is gone. There are just a hundred tiny Phils, with red hair at their temples and a blue coffee shop apron. He wonders whether the mirror threw itself from the wall or if it just gently lay on the floor and shattered. Either one looks likely. Phil feels as guilty as if he’d done it himself (but then he may as well have done. Broken the mirror and broken his heart. He’s always unintentionally doing that).
Dan didn’t understand, had frowned down at it and said are we still talking about the mirror? when Phil had never been talking about the mirror at all. He wanted to say we were there, you and me before his thoughts ran away with him and a whole storm of I never came to your room at university before, why did I never do that started brewing.
(The answer to that is sadly obvious; Phil had never wanted to see Dan’s room because he didn’t really want to see Dan at university. Dan’s life outside Phil was a scary thing filled, in Phil’s head, with a whole cast of students like Dan: tanned and gorgeous, inviting him to parties, being confident and flirty and various other things that Phil was not. He’s lived a lot of lives convinced that Dan will one day wander out of his grasp).
“I’m sorry,” Dan had said about the mirror, like he wasn’t sure why he was saying so but felt like he should. His hand had been on Phil’s sleeve.
Phil looked at Dan’s fingers and measured the distance they would have to travel to be touching his wrist instead. “For the mirror? Why? It was my fault. I rushed. I didn’t think it would happen.”
Dan repeated, “The mirror?”
“I don’t think I can fix it,” Phil replied, and he knew it was true.
He still knows it now, even if he doesn’t recall the full details. There’s a receipt in his hand with Dorm room, 2009, are you here, I don’t care scrawled on the back because it was all he remembered when he woke up under the staff room blanket and all he was clinging onto as he rushed to the second floor, avoiding invisible obstacles and tripping over his own feet.
PJ shouts, “Phil, are you upstairs again?”
Phil says, “Yes.”
PJ leaves a very polite pause before he says, “So, are you coming back or -?”
He’s waiting on the bottom step when Phil returns, blinks owlishly up and him and says, “Are you okay? You haven’t been - I was going to say you haven’t been yourself but I’m not sure if I remember what that was. My memory’s not the best at the moment. What were you doing up there?”
Phil says, “Just trying to fix something. It didn’t work.”
The receipt, crumpled into a tiny ball, goes in his locker with the wedding favour and each marble and petal that has ever fallen from Dan’s briefcase. He has every shade on the spectrum, every piece of blue that could ever be imagined.
Dan himself is at the counter, folding and refolding his coat over his arms. Phil waits for him to say caramel macchiato but instead he says, “Phil.”
At some point after realising the mirror was broken Phil had touched Dan’s face. His thumb had almost been on Dan’s mouth and Dan had let him do it. Moving too quickly had caused some other Phil to end up in pieces on the second floor, but Phil can’t quite bring himself to slow this one down.
Dan repeats, “Phil?”
He’d smiled, last time, and Phil had almost seen a dimple somewhere in his too perfect face. Had knocked over everything on the counter in his desperation to reach for it.
“It’s weird coming here and you not being behind the counter or in the staff room,” Dan continues, still tidying his coat. “It’s like coming to the wrong place.”
“I was upstairs.”
Dan obviously wants to guess the mirror, his lips are half-moving around the word before he says,”Okay,” instead. He looks out of sorts, pale and fidgety, shifting his weight back and forth foot to foot in unison with the movement of his coat, arm to arm. Sleep ruffled and sleep deprived at the same time. The circles under his eyes are almost indigo coloured. Phil regrets having taken him upstairs, regrets sitting next to him at the inevitable piano and then touching his face, regrets his satchel overflowing with azure petals. He was trying to wake himself up but seems to have succeeded only in pulling Dan under with him.
Dan says, “Phil,” because the third time's a charm, the third time gives it meaning.
Phil says, “Dan. You look tired.”
Dan almost smiles. Phil watches his cheek for the dimple’s potential reappearance. “I look the same as I always do.”
“But just more tired.”
“I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”
Phil sighs. “I know how that feels.”
Dan actually does smile, full and blinding. “How? You’re always asleep.” He tracks Phil’s gaze, one cheek to the other, and his mouth flattens as he realises that whatever Phil had found last time has now disappeared.
“It’s not like sleep,” Phil says. “It’s more like I’m continually going on really tiring journeys.”
Dan didn’t remember the wedding invitation. He’d said I don’t know anyone who’d invite me to a wedding and also frowned at all of Phil’s blue collection. He barely seems to realise that any of those things are real, even when he’s the one handing them to Phil every single time. He said you like blue? when Phil wanted to say you gave them to me. All of them.
“I was going to ask if I could stay. When you finish your shift.”
“Is this you asking?”
Dan grimaces. “Yes. In a really awkward way. I should have just said -” He stops abruptly like Phil had interrupted him, looks at Phil expectantly. Phil frowns. Dan says, “I should have just said that this is what I look forward to the most in my day. That’s what I should have just said.”
“What else do you even do with your days?”
“I don’t know.” Dan stops again, eyes on Phil’s mouth, like they’re acting out a play and Phil’s supposed to come in with the next line but he never does. Or they’re filming a video and Dan is leaving a space for Phil to say something. “I just walk around and wait to see you. I suppose. That’s what it feels like. I don’t - Sometimes I don’t even remember what else I did at all.”
“I was going to ask you to stay.”
Phil says, “Stay,” which isn’t asking at all really and Dan is nodding on the first sound, right on the St. Phil thinks they’ve moved past questions, somewhere along the way, straight into knowing exactly what the other person wants and the inevitability of it happening. It’s too fast. He’s misjudged the pace completely.
“Were you looking at the mirror?” Dan finally asks. “When you were upstairs?”
“I don’t think I can fix it.”
“It’s just a mirror.”
“It’s not - That’s not all it -”
“What else would it be?”
Dan repeats the same thing, what else would it be, up on the second floor, later. The glorious later that stretches out between Phil’s shift ending and night beginning. Dan doesn’t touch any of the pieces, he clasps his hands respectfully in front of him and says, “It’s weird though. The way it fell. Did you move all the pieces like that?”
The empty square of wall is bookended by a plain black bordered mirror and a huge ornate one with gold plating in each corner. Dan looks at the mirror just above that one, shaped and marked like the surface of the moon. “That’s cool. I’d have that one in my bedroom.” He turns back to Phil. “Do you have a favourite one?”
Phil can feel his eyes widen, the sudden staccato of his breathing. “I-”
“It’s not that serious a question,” Dan says, aiming for light and landing somewhere else.
“I don’t like this room.”
“But you’re in here a lot. This is the third time we’ve been here.”
“To what?” Dan tilts his head but Phil says nothing. He touches the side of the moon mirror. “Are these melded to the wall or something? How did that one -”
“We could go to the piano,” Phil says. The room feels suddenly devoid of air, his pockets heavy with marbles and there’s too much movement on the corners of his eyes (endless loops of different Dans in different mirrors, spinning and smiling with too little and too many dimples). “I mean, I want to go to the piano. Please.”
Dan says, “Sure,” and holds his hand out as if beckoning Phil across an abyss. One balcony to the other.
The piano is out of tune and in need of a lot of love (according to Dan, who pats it and says and it’s so old). Each key has a tinny sounding reverb behind it that makes Phil wince. Dan hardly seems to notice. He plays something light and bouncy and says, words skipping over the music, “You knew I wanted to be a pianist.”
Phil says, “Yes.”
“But you know a lot about me. Apparently.”
Phil sighs. “Yes.”
Dan’s playing slows down. “It disappeared again, didn’t it? The dimple.”
“Dimples,” Phil corrects. “And I don’t - I’m not sure if I even saw it in the first place. It was -” he reaches out, puts his thumb to Dan’s cheek. “This one. The deeper one. I thought it was there, but. Maybe I was imagining it.”
“Or wishing for it,” Dan says. “What else is missing?”
Phil ignores the question. “You really don’t remember the wedding favour?”
“I told you I -”
“But you gave it to me. Your handwriting is on the back.”
“You can’t.” Dan stops playing completely, then starts up something much more ponderous. Almost like a funeral march. “You can’t be annoyed that I’m not - What are you trying to get me to remember?”
Phil says, “Us,” and the word lands in the space between them just as Dan hits a solid B flat.
--4. slow show--
Phil holds it to his ear, like he’s trying to listen to the ocean inside a shell, the piano in the static. There’s a flashing red button which he pushes and almost immediately the noise settles into a voice he doesn’t recognise. A girl’s voice. The piano starts to sound like a guitar, the gentle plucking of strings. She says, “Phil.”
Phil, for reasons he can’t explain, looks at Thor. Thor blinks. “Yes?”
“You’ve been there for too long.”
Thor, remembering that he’s supposed to have a cold, suddenly sneezes.
“You’re going to have to make a decision at some point. We’re all going to have to.”
Phil says, “I’m not understanding you.”
She says, “Don’t look at me like that.”
The button turns green. The noise stops, abruptly, reducing to just Phil (staring at his hands) and Thor (snuffling his way to another sneeze).
“I know you were faking,” Phil tells him, without looking up. “You don’t have to keep it up.” Thor stops. “Did you hear that?”
He half-thinks that it must have been a missed signal, but she said his name. Should he remember something about guitars? Does he remember anything about guitars? He recognises her voice, an echo of it saying this isn’t right at all as he and Chris watched Dan and PJ leave in a taxi. He puts his hand to his forehead and feels tired from the sheer effort of waking up.
It’s two am. Phil stands to look out through the windows, Thor under one arm, the hills and mounds of the enclosure bathed in silver. He keeps one hand wrapped around the radio. “I lost one,” he tells Thor. “And broke another one.” None of the words make sense and yet he’s the one saying them.
PJ says, “That makes no sense.”
Phil looks at Thor first, in the ridiculous hope that he’s suddenly gained the power of speech, and then at the doorway second, at PJ, leaning on the doorframe, hair askew and colour high in his cheeks. Phil says, “Hi. You’re here late.”
“I’m here late,” PJ repeats. “That’s - That’s how we’re starting, with me being -”
“We need to talk.” PJ pushes himself up and off the door. “Don’t say what about, you know what about. And I’m not even going to ask if this is a good time or anything because you never go anywhere, you’re always just here, you’re either asleep or you’re -” he waves one hand, vaguely, towards Phil’s face.
“Or I’m what?”
“Falling in love with my boyfriend,” PJ replies. “I suppose.”
The sudden silence hits like someone has kicked Phil in the back of his knees. He tries to gain his balance against it but can’t, stumbles over thin air and has to right himself with his free arm, the one that doesn’t have Thor tucked into his elbow. He doesn’t say what or I’m sorry or I was going to tell you or any of the variety of things that he could say. I didn’t fall in love with him PJ, he should say. Falling implies that it was a process, a start and an end, a moment in between where I was neither out or in love with him. It wasn’t like that. I saw him and it was instant. I blinked in love with him.
Instead he says, “He told you.”
“Told me what?” PJ’s face falls. “Have you been -”
“No, no, I just - I told him, earlier.” Was it earlier? It could be hours ago, weeks or months. “I only just -”
“Phil,” PJ says. “I think you were telling him something he already knows.”
Phil, realising that he hasn’t actually said I’m sorry yet, ends up blurting it out in one mangled word, an i’msorry that makes PJ sigh and doesn’t sound like it means enough. He says it again, “I’m sorry,” rounding off each syllable.
“I know you are,” PJ replies.
“No, I mean -”
“I know you are. Thanks for not trying to deny it and tell me I’m wrong or that I’ve been misreading all the signals.”
“I couldn’t do that. I’m a terrible liar.”
PJ snorts. “No, you’re not. You can’t pretend to be anything other than yourself.”
Phil thinks that his grasp on himself has been getting steadily weaker of late. “I’m still - I should have told you sooner. I should have told Dan sooner. I should have - everything, really. I should have done the whole thing differently.”
“You never would have said anything, though,” PJ says. “That’s not you, that’s not what you’re like. You would have sat back and just waited. I don’t even know what made you say something now, or even what you said, or -”
“I told him to break up with you. Because I’m in love with him.”
There’s a second where PJ almost looks impressed, like if this was a different scenario, a scene in a different universe, he would be whooping and holding his hand up for a high five. Would be saying wow that’s not like you at all! because it’s not, he’s right, Phil has never stepped forward for anyone, in any circumstance, even when the signs are all saying yes he’s looking for the one that says but maybe not. This PJ in another universe might then say but why now? and Phil would have to say that he doesn’t know. Like there was another voice in his head willing him on and the words had tumbled out.
And Dan had looked at him. And Phil had thought there it is because his expression was so suddenly obvious, Phil had just been looking at it wrong. Squinting without his glasses for something he’d hoped was there, a Skype connection breaking Dan’s face into blurred pixels until Phil looked harder and - there it was. The signs said yes. The signals made sense. Phil saw him across the platform of a train station and felt as if someone had knocked their fists to his temples. Waking up from a dream.
PJ also looks like someone has knocked a fist to his temple, but in a different way. “You should have told me. We’re friends. We were best friends.”
“Don’t say it like -”
“I mean it, It’s different. It’s been different for ages. You’re different.”
Phil says, “PJ.”
“I love him,” PJ replies.
“I know. You think that I don’t know that? That’s why I wasn’t - I wasn’t going to say anything, I was just going to -”
“That’s worse!” PJ exclaims. “What were you going to do? Cling onto any interaction you ever had with him and, like, pine from afar for all eternity?”
“Yes,” Phil says. “Probably.”
“So, why did you tell him now?”
“I felt like I should. Like it was important and that I’d left it for too long.”
PJ exhales, an annoyed sounding breath that clicks on his teeth. “That’s very considerate of you. To think about the timing.” When Phil tries to reply he sighs again. “Actually, this is perfect timing, isn’t it? I decide to come over here and talk to you about it on the same day you decide to tell Dan. What are the chances.” It’s not a question, the words are sad and flat. “You want to know when I knew.” Again, not a question.
Phil answers it anyway. “When?”
“He got Thor out of the enclosure and scratched his face. You remember. You had blood on your sleeve but you hadn’t been in there. And it was smudged, like you’d -” PJ puts his own hand to his face, touches his thumb to his cheekbone. “Like that.”
Phil says, “Like that.”
“I wish that you didn’t.” PJ sighs, looks up at the ceiling. “If someone else was going to be in love with him I wish it wasn’t you.” A thought suddenly seems to occur to him and he snaps his head down, looks directly at Phil. “What did he say?”
Thor hisses, a low rumbling of well there it is. Phil, weakly, can only manage a feeble “What?” which is in no way the response PJ deserves and they both know it.
“What did he say back? My boyfriend, when you told him you loved him and that he should break up with me?” PJ has both his hands in the curled mess of his hair, tangled up in his own ringlets. “And that date, that double-date, I definitely knew then, when he was looking out of the taxi, and you were -”
“It wasn’t -”
“What did he say?”
“He should be the one to tell you that.”
“I want you to tell me.”
“I don’t -”
“Stop being so passive,” PJ says. “All the time. You’re so -”
“For what? Being passive?”
“Yes,” Phil replies, hopelessly, wanting to get into Thor’s pen and bury himself under all of the straw and blue paper, to stay there motionless until PJ leaves. “For all of that.”
PJ says, “Tell me what he said.”
Phil fixes his gaze somewhere near PJ’s left foot. “I took Thor over there -”
“And look at me while you do it.”
Phil does so. PJ stares back at him, unblinking. “I took Thor over there because he had a cold, remember?” Thor sneezes obediently. “And I just wanted to tell him. I don’t know why it was the exact moment but I just wanted him to know, I couldn’t - I didn’t want to carry on like I was, PJ, that’s all. I’m so tired. All the time. And it was making me more - And I thought -”
“You thought he felt the same way,” PJ interrupts, and then laughs at whatever expression Phil makes. “Come on Phil, of course you did. Why would you tell him if you didn’t think there was a chance? You knew, you saw -”
Phil says, “PJ.”
“I knew,” PJ says. “I saw.” He finally looks away from Phil, out past him towards the enclosure. “I interrupted you though, if it was today, you left.”
“I went back.”
PJ gets the same strange half-impressed expression as before, looks at Phil like he’s a different person (or a different Phil, a Phil that has been transplanted in from somewhere else with slightly more confidence. Slightly more everything). “Were you right? With what you thought?”
“I don’t know what I thought,” Phil says. “I don’t know what I think. Everything’s so -”
“Phil,” PJ says, gently, like he has so many times, leaning over pub tables, at parties, at conventions just before he says we should collaborate on something soon, bending his knees so they can all fit into one of Dan’s instagram posts. The familiarity of it makes Phil take a step back. I mean soon, we never do that much together anymore. Half-promises made on beaches in Brighton for projects that never happen. “Phil.”
Phil has to brace himself on the roof of Thor’s pen. “What?”
“I’m asking if he feels the same way.”
Phil, with too many encouraging, patient, creative PJs in his head, always the first person to message or comment on anything he posts, says, “Yes. He does.”
PJ sighs (a short little release of air, as if Phil had stepped forward and pinched him). He doesn’t sound surprised, more the complete opposite. The soft sound of someone confirming a fact that he already knew. “Right. That’s - Okay.”
Phil says, “I’m -”
“Stop saying that you’re sorry, Phil, please. I just.” PJ sighs again. “I just wish you’d told me first. I think you owed me that. I think I deserved that.”
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Phil says. It sounds weak to his own ears. “I wanted to tell you, but I - I had to tell him. It had been too long, it was -”
“Too long? You’ve only known him for a few months. I’ve only known him for a few months. It’s not like you’ve been pining for years or, like, been in love with him for a decade or -”
“I have,” Phil says. “I have.”
PJ blinks. “No, you haven’t. That’s ridiculous.”
“I know it is, I know that it sounds that way, but I’ve been having these dreams, PJ, for weeks, and -”
“Be serious. Can’t you just have a serious conversation with me?”
Phil has a distinct memory of PJ saying I’m never serious before making some sort of gloriously abstract video about space travel with props made entirely of cardboard. He’s never serious (though he tries sometimes, turning down the sweetness of his face and the corners of his mouth). But this isn’t the same PJ. And he’s not really the same Phil (or maybe he is, a Phil lost out of the right place and time). “I’m being serious. You have to listen to me, when I met him, I knew -”
“Are you trying to justify this to me by saying that you knew Dan from a dream,” PJ states. “Is that actually -”
“Will you let me -”
“I think you’re past the point of asking me to let you do anything.”
Phil says, “PJ,” as PJ starts to turn and walk back towards the door. “I haven’t explained.”
“I don’t think you could,” PJ replies. He hesitates in the doorway and adds, “Get some sleep. It’s late. I only - I knew you’d be awake. And I knew you’d be here. You always are. Where else would you be? Where else do you go?”
Phil leaves it too late to say anything back. PJ is already gone, the stamping of his feet disappearing into the dusk outside and the door closing back in Phil’s face, before he manages, “I don’t know.” To everything. He doesn’t know where else he would be or where else he would go. Is there anywhere else to go that doesn’t revolve around Dan.
He lets Thor back into his pen and takes his usual place in the chair beside it. Thor watches him through the mesh of the cage, chirping questioningly.
“I don’t know if I broke this one too,” Phil tells him. “I’m breaking them all.”
--1. absent treatment--
Phil realises that he’s been stirring his coffee for so long that it’s gone cold, a whole mound of sugar marooned in the centre of his cup. He can’t see their waitress to order another. “Do they not usually?”
Dan says, “What?”
“Do they not usually have colour schemes. For the weddings.”
“I don’t know.” Dan looks startled. Phil watches the realisation creep over his face, catch somewhere in the tired softness of his eyes. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of the ones before. It’s just, these.” He sweeps his hand over his notes, scattering little index cards of paper in his wake. “All these perfect ones. That’s what I remember.”
Phil pats down the escaping pieces of paper from the air. He says, “That’s alright.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.” Dan frowns at his own intelligible writing. “I’ve been thinking. About university. Twelve thirty until four. About - About you losing it.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I didn’t mean -”
“Losing it implies that I just let it fall out of my hands. That’s not what happened at all.”
“I didn’t think we could lose them at all,” Dan says. “I didn’t think they would leave.” He’s said that a lot, since Phil had first mentioned the loss, the mislaying, of twelve thirty until four. I didn’t think they could go.
“There has to be,” Phil begins, half-stops, and then continues carefully, like every word is stepping over a spiderweb crack in a mirror. “There has to be an ending point. A natural sort of finish.” The curtain coming down at the end of a play, the fade to black in a film, the zooming in on the lead couples’ adoring faces. “When they get to where they’re supposed to be. Where we’re supposed to be. Or where we should have been all along. Something we should have done before, or something we didn’t do right.”
“I could try and dream about it,” Dan says. “I’ll try, really hard, before we go to sleep tonight - I could get back there.”
“But what do you remember about it?” Phil taps his fingertip to the peacock blue notebook. Dan’s notes, in comparison to Phil’s files, are still scattered and fleeting. The smallest hints of memories. Dan can sometimes recall the colour of a coat, the way Phil’s hair had looked, if there was music, the smell of a terribly made caramel macchiato. He wakes, sometimes, blinking with his hands outstretched, as if he was just about to catch hold of something.
“That I wanted you to come to me,” Dan says. “To meet me. That you were keeping me far away. That I loved you.”
Phil sighs, lays his hand flat against the table. “Isn’t that the same?” Dan touches his wrist (briefly, like a passing breeze). “It’s like that everywhere.”
“I felt younger,” Dan replies. Phil raises an eyebrow. “More optimistic, I suppose. More hopeful. I’m not like that everywhere.”
“You’re not optimistic here?”
Dan shrugs. “I wasn’t before. Before we met. At least, I don’t think so.”
“We didn’t really meet,” Phil says. “You made an appointment to come and see me.”
“Before I came and found you then.” Dan starts tying string around his notebook, enclosing all the index cards and wedding invitations that threaten to escape from the pages. “But, I’m being serious. About the weddings.”
“And the colours?”
“They’ve all met three months ago, Phil. All of them. But they act like they’ve known each other for years and they’ve been waiting. And the ceremonies are ridiculous, you said that, remember? All the feathers and the lace and how much does that even cost? I mean, I can’t ask because that’s not really what they want in the article but how can all of these people be having dresses made with hundreds of crystals and pearls and -”
Phil says, “Dan.”
“They’re like weddings that have been dreamt up.”
“What are you saying?”
The string snaps, index cards scattering back over the table. Phil gathers several into his palm (a small thank you for coming to a wedding, a yellow square with you need to learn with his calls mean scrawled on it, a typed business card for Somers Town which looks nothing like the coffee shop they’re currently sat in). He holds the yellow one up to Dan, who frowns at it. “That’s your handwriting,” Phil points out. “What calls do you mean?”
“Mine,” Dan says. “Or yours.”
The back of the card is sticky, it catches against Phil’s fingers. He repeats, “What are you saying?” though he’s fairly sure that Dan doesn’t even know, that the words are just bubbling out of him before he’s had time to process them.
“You’re remembering more,” Dan replies, not to Phil, eyes still firmly on the broken string holding his dreams together. “And I’m not.”
“That’s not - There’s nothing wrong with that, Dan. I chase ghosts for a living. I listen to people’s dreams because PJ never believes them. I’m just - I have practice with this.” Dan raises one eyebrow. “Not with you though. I’m not practised with you.”
“But you’re practised with ghosts.”
“There were a lot of them,” Phil says. “I think. I wouldn’t - I don’t know why I said chase, we don’t really chase them, I just did the interviews while PJ knocked on walls and said it was the pipes. There wasn’t any chasing involved.”
Dan says, “Wasn’t there?” lightly and also not lightly at all.
--6. dan howell--
“Dreams.” PJ repeats. “About you.”
“Yeah. Like, recurring ones.”
“I- Were you having them before?”
“We’ll never know for sure, will we?” PJ replies. “And no, Phil, I sadly haven’t had any recent dreams about you. I haven’t seen you in person for months.”
“We were going to come up,” Phil begins. “But, with the tour and-”
“I know. I didn’t mean it like that. We’re all busy. I mean, I was in London a while ago for meetings and I was going to text and- It’s just finding the time, isn’t it? There’s never enough. But I really did want to meet up. And then they had photos of you and Dan all over the place just to make me feel extra guilty about it.” There’s a pause and PJ adds, “Not in, like, a stalkery way. I think you’d been there for a shoot, the calendar? There were dogs.”
Phil instantly says, “Zils Street. You had meetings in-”
“That’s the one. How do you remember that? I never remember anything. I only know the name of that one because of all the-”
“Mirrors,” Phil supplies.
“Yeah! In the dressing room or whatever. Weird. But they had the photos of you and Dan, the one where you’re in polo necks, and I was like wow, I really wish I could spend more time with Phil and- like it was before. When we were starting. But, you know.” PJ’s voice trails away a little and picks up again for, “Busy. We all are.”
“We’ll come to Brighton,” Phil says, automatically. He’s instantly aware of how many times he’s said that exact thing over the past year.
He repeats it when the call is ending, says it twice, until PJ is saying, “Sure!” and Phil is saying, “We will, I promise we will,” until PJ is the one to finally politely hang up.
Louise is more bemused to hear from him, mainly because she’s always been more Dan’s friend, and sounds like she’s waiting for him to pass the phone over. She puts up with his increasingly awkward small talk for exactly ten minutes before saying, “Is there something I can help with Phil?”
Phil stops in the middle of whatever he was saying about the weather. “I - Possibly? I don’t know actually. I was hoping so.”
“What is it?”
“This is going to sound weird.”
“That’s fine,” Louise says. “I’m good with weird.” There’s the snuffling sounds of the baby, obviously being held on her shoulder. Her voice turns into more of a coo, not addressed to Phil at all. “Aren’t we? We love weird.”
“Have you been having any recurring dreams?” Phil says, all in in a rush, one on burst of air. “Ones that potentially I’m in. Possibly.”
The baby coughs. Louise hesitates. “Is this for a video?”
“No it’s - It’s just for me. Just a question I need answering.”
“I’m not great at remembering dreams,” Louise says. “And I don’t really sleep that much at the moment, not with this one.” There’s a delighted sounding gurgle, as she presumably touches the baby’s cheek (or whatever else you do to make babies laugh. Phil’s never sure).
“That’s not a no,” Phil replies, hopefully.
“It’s not. It’s weird that you’re asking this, actually, because I was just about to film a vlog and I was going to mention it, but I didn’t know where to start, really, and you just get people sending you analysis and wanting more -”
Phil says, “Louise.”
“They’re not exciting. And I don’t even go anywhere, it’s just me sitting in a room, or two rooms, one’s just like an office, and the other’s red, I think. I don’t remember the red one so well but the office one is just people coming in and me giving them advice and handing them leaflets. Why couldn’t I get a recurring dream where I’m a millionairess with a really cute pool boy?”
Phil is about to say am I in them but it’s more important to ask, “Have you been in London recently?”
Louise doesn’t even pause at the change in conversation. “A few weeks ago for a book thing. I texted Dan, didn’t he say? The place I was in had photos of you two everywhere.” She half-laughs. “You must remember it. It had absolutely loads of -”
“Mirrors,” Phil supplies, for the second time.
“That’s the one. No one needs to see themselves from that many angles so early in the morning.” The gurgling of the baby starts to get slightly annoyed sounding with the potential for tears. “Oh dear. Phil, it’s been lovely to -”
“That’s okay,” Phil interrupts. “Listen, do you have Dodie’s number?”
Louise says, “Dodie Clark? Yes, I think I do.”
“Can you send it to me? When you get the chance but, like, soon. Please.”
“Of course.” Louise’s voice fades in and out, probably bouncing the baby up and down. “I hope I answered your question properly Phil.”
“You did,” he tells her, even though he’s not sure what the proper answer would be.
Dan’s spreadsheet (Student!Me, Vet!Me, Coffee!Me, Hipster!Me and Balcony!Me) looks accusingly out from the screen of his laptop. Phil supposes that Student!Me can be crossed out now. He highlights the whole column in a deep navy that hides the text.
Dan, next to him on the sofa, having been listening to each conversation with a look of eye rolling fondness (the same expression he uses whenever Phil has to have a serious discussion with anyone over the phone), says, “The student one? That’s the one that went?”
“I haven’t had it again. And the mirror’s broken.”
Dan says, “What?”
Phil echoes, “What?” back, aware that he’s said something but isn’t sure what.
“The -” Phil puts his fingers to his temples. Dan immediately pulls them away. “At the coffee shop.”
“What coffee shop?” Dan nods at the spreadsheet, now close to falling off his lap. “That coffee shop?” Phil nods into Dan’s hands. “What mirror?”
“Mirrors,” Phil corrects. “Plural. You don’t remember.” That shouldn’t surprise him, the mirrors had come with the argument and Dan was good at letting those slip from his memory. “At Zils Street.”
“No, I remember. They were all over the walls. I took a billion selfies in there.” Dan frowns. “What do they have to do with any of this?”
“It’s not going to make any sense.”
“Try and explain it anyway.”
“It’s not going to make any sense,” Phil repeats.
“Phil.” Dan removes his fingers from Phil’s forehead, loops them around Phil’s wrists. “This is getting weird. Okay. It already was weird, I know that, but it’s getting - We need to actually do something about it. It’s pointless just tracking them on spreadsheets and deleting them when.” He stops, changes the subject in the sort of swooping way that only he can, leaving Phil in mid-air. “You should be happy it’s gone. That’s what we wanted, wasn’t it? For them to stop? That’s one less to - to worry about.” Phil sighs, Dan must feel it under his hands. “You’re getting attached to them.”
Phil says, “Yes.”
“They’re not real.”
Phil says, “I don’t -”
“I’m real.” Dan presses his forehead against Phil’s, the space where his fringe used to be, when he blinks his eyelashes catch on Phil’s cheekbone. “I feel like you’re cheating on me sometimes, but with me. Better versions of me. Younger and cuter ones. I’m watching you sleeping and wondering which one you’re with and I just want to wake you up. Every time. And when you do wake up I think you wish that you’re back there.”
Phil almost shakes his head but to do so would dislodge Dan so he just, with not enough feeling, without the vehemence he was aiming for, mumbles, “That’s not true.”
“Which one’s your favourite?”
“You know that it’s -”
“Which one? Don’t think about it, just answer.”
Phil doesn’t think and so answers, “The 1920s.”
There’s a pause, a long one, long enough for him to regret having said anything, before Dan makes a huh noise. “I thought it would have been the student.”
“They’re all -” Phil having started decides that he may as well finish. “I like them all.”
This apparently makes Dan sad. Extremely so. His mouth downturns and the frown that’s been hovering around his expression finally settles onto his face. Phil immediately wants to apologise, but finds that he can’t. The only way to apologise is to say I didn’t mean it or that came out wrong and neither of those things are true. He’d meant it and it had come out completely correctly. He leans forward until his forehead is in the curve of Dan’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I said that.”
Dan’s fingers flex around his wrists. “I - I’d like any version of you too. I’m not mad at you for saying that.”
“But you’re sad that I did.”
“You’re going places without me and I can’t chase after you. You’re living lives without me.”
“I’m dreaming,” Phil says, surprised. “That’s not a group activity.”
Dan sighs. Phil feels it against his cheek. “I really thought it was going to be the student one that was your favourite. I thought that’s why you’re sad it’s gone. It would have been my favourite, if I was having them.”
“Because of the hot student-teacher thing? Me in glasses sitting at a desk?”
“I wasn’t always that patient with you, when I was actual student me, was I. I said a lot of stuff that I wish I could take back and then didn’t say a lot of stuff that I should have done. It was just a lot all at once and, I mean, I was sometimes pretty obnoxious.”
“Everyone’s pretty obnoxious when they’re nineteen.”
“If I could do it again, just that part, I would. And I’d say what I meant to say instead of worrying what people thought all the time. And I’m be more obvious.”
“Dan.” Phil leans back so he can make eye contact. “You couldn’t have been more obvious. You were the most.” He doesn’t finish. Dan was the most of everything, too much for Phil to keep hold of in his two hands, always had been and always would be.
“I’m just saying, I would see the appeal. Of that one. Of getting to do that again.”
“I’ve never thought of doing it again.” Dan huffs. “No, really. It wasn’t always perfect and I’m not going to pretend like I was happy the entire time but it’s part of how we got here. We might not be here if it hadn’t happened that way. I wouldn’t want it changed. I’ve never thought about it.”
Dan says, “I have,” because of course he has. “Sometimes.” Sometimes, for Dan, means all the time. Forever worrying about his place in the universe. “Like, what I should have said, what I should have done.”
Phil, fondly, purposely fondly so Dan knows he isn’t teasing, says, “You think that about everything. You think that about the tone you used to the barista when you order your coffee. You think that about conversations you had years ago. You think that about -”
“About how we could be different. What if I’d never messaged you. What if I’d carried on with my degree. What if you’d carried on with a post grad. What if we’d never met. What if we eventually had but differently.”
“Slow down.” Phil leans forward again. His nose brushes Dan’s, so close that he has to whisper. “I’m the one having the dreams.”
“I know,” Dan whispers back. “I wish you weren’t.” Phil kisses him, his wrists still caught by Dan’s fingers, the laptop containing his other lives finally tumbling to the floor with a not very gentle sounding thud. Dan opens his mouth under Phil’s, like he always does, always in a rush, like there’s always someone about to burst through the door and catch them. He murmurs, “Why the 1920s?” against Phil’s jaw, and then his cheek. “Why there?”
Phil presses “What?” into Dan’s right dimple.
“Why there? What am I like there? What are we like there?”
“You write,” Phil mumbles. “You’re a writer, you wear a coat with holes in it, you came to find me, your hair is -” he releases one hand from Dan’s grasp, pushes into Dan’s hair, tangles the curls around his fingers. “I lit a candle for you. In the window, so you knew where I was. You’re sad there, I think, your eyes are sad sometimes. I kissed you on a piano bench.”
“You love me.”
Phil isn’t sure if it’s a question, it can’t be a question at this point, it hasn’t been asked as a question for eight years. You love me? Dan knows he does. He knows the reverse. It’s the sort of obvious thing that there’s no comparison to, a thing that never truly started, a fact that just was. You love me. “You know -”
“No, I mean, you’re in love with me. There.”
“Oh,” Phil says. His hands are somehow both free now, out of Dan’s hair and under the neverending folds of his sweater, splayed on the bare skin of his back. Dan repeats it, like he’s already said it a few times, you’re in love with me there, like a few minutes of time have passed unnoticed in between each of their sighs. “Yes. I am.”
“You’re in love with all of them.”
All of you, Phil wants to say. All of you.
--3. caramel macchiato--
“PJ”, Phil interrupts. “How long have I worked here?”
PJ frowns. “What?”
“How long have I worked here?”
“I barely remember how long I’ve worked here.” PJ doesn’t laugh. Phil feels the absence of it. “Actually, I genuinely don’t. It must be a long time. Why are you asking?”
“How did we meet? When did you first see me?”
PJ laughs now, but it isn’t genuine. “Phil, I don’t know, I came to work one day and here you were. Wearing a load of prints that don’t match. And I was probably like, hi Phil, can you smell burning, and -”
“When did I tell you my name?”
“You probably told me at some point, Phil. What are you asking me exactly?”
Phil says, “I don’t know. I’m just really tired.”
“How can someone who sleeps so much be tired?” PJ bumps Phil’s shoulder, lightly, with his fist. “Look, I know that there’s obviously something going on or you’re overthinking something but, you can tell me. You could tell me. If you wanted to. I could try and help.”
“Do I ever leave this shop?” Phil asks. “In the time that you’ve known me, have you ever seen me in the street? Am I ever outside?”
PJ’s hand stays at Phil’s shoulder. “What’s going on?” When Phil sighs he says, “No. I haven’t. I see you here. Just here, at work. I come to work, you’re already here. I leave work, you’re still here. I think you live in the staff room, on that couch. Or upstairs. Maybe you’re living on the second floor. I don’t know.”
Phil almost says I think many versions of me are living on the second floor but that would be a step too far for PJ, who is now patting reassuringly at Phil’s coffee shop t-shirt. He can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be a step too far so says nothing at all.
PJ says, “I wish you’d told me.”
PJ frowns. “What?”
“You just said -” Phil puts his fingers to his temples. PJ clucks his tongue sympathetically, starts to say something about a headache, do you have a headache, Phil, you said that you were tired. “No, it’s nothing. I thought - I thought you said something.”
He burns the milk almost instantly. So instantly that it almost seems intentional. Dan, first in line, of course first in line, says, “Is everything okay?” and then tries to pay in bluebell petals, piles of them that cascade out of his hand and onto the counter. He stares at them, surprised. “I don’t.”
Phil’s voice is high pitched when he says, “Something’s happening,” when he means to say something’s going wrong. Something was wrong all along. “I have to tell you,” falls out of his mouth unbidden.
Dan says, “Tell me what?”
“Can you come into the staff room?”
“There’s a -” Dan pointedly looks behind him, “Whole line of customers here, Phil.”
“What are these?” Phil gathers the bluebells into his hands. “Why do you keep giving me these?”
“I like you in blue.”
“So, they’re presents?”
“No, they’re signals. You keep.” Dan stops speaking, then looks astonished, like he’s been listening to someone else talk. Whatever Phil keeps is left unsaid. “Do you want me to come back? I’ll come back.”
“No, I want you to stay.”
The smell of burning is getting worse, Phil isn’t sure how. Some customers are leaving, actually all of the customers are leaving, maybe Phil had burnt the milk on purpose, but Dan stays, awkward in his always ill fitting suit, his always too straight hair. Looking at him is like seeing another Dan through an extremely dirty window, or in the reflection of a smudged mirror. A Dan that he can’t get to.
Dan raises his arms, as if to announce the fact that he’s staying, as if to say here I am, then lets them drop back to his sides. His every motion sends more petals scattering in Phil’s direction. “That’s the first time you’ve actually given me a direct answer.”
Phil says, “It can’t be.”
“No, it definitely is. I remember everything you say and that’s the first time. You’re normally just speaking in allegories.”
“I don’t mean to. It just happens.”
Dan is suddenly very close to the counter, petals piling into snow drifts under his hands. “What do you want to tell me?”
Phil wants to take the words back, he doesn’t know how to tell something that he doesn’t understand. He wants to ask Dan if he’s real, if this is real. He’d wanted the milk to burn and it had done so, immediately. He wanted Dan to be there and so Dan was. He wanted Dan to come closer and Dan is an exhale away. Phil wants to ask what is this, what is this over and over until someone can answer.
He says, “What are these?” instead, again, to the bluebells. “Signals for what?”
“For you,” Dan replies. “I suppose. I don’t collect them, my pockets are just always full of them. They’re always in my hair or in my wallet or - I feel like it’s important that you see them, so that you know I’m here.”
“I know you’re here.” Phil lifts his hand but can’t decide which part of Dan he wants to touch and so just skims his fingertips across Dan’s cheek. “I can see you.”
Dan leans into the touch, keeps leaning even as Phil is drawing his hand away. “What do you want to tell me?”
The shop (counter, tables, chairs, all of the cups and saucers) seems to curve around them, like someone has the whole scene cupped in their palm and is pushing them into the centre. Phil says, “It won’t make sense. And I know you’re going to say to tell you anyway but it really won’t make sense. I don’t understand it and it’s happening to me.”
“Or to both of us simultaneously,” Dan suggests. His tilting towards Phil has set him off balance, he’s pressing his hands to the counter like he could press through it. “Have you ever thought about that?”
“I dream about you,” Phil tells him. “A lot.”
“How much is a lot?”
“All the time. Constantly.”
Dan raises his eyebrows. “What types of dreams?”
“Just, all kinds. I don’t know if they’re dreams, they could be - they don’t feel like dreams.”
“I don’t know what dreams are meant to feel like,” Dan says. He watches Phil pace back and forth, all the blue in the room rising and falling with the breeze he’s creating. “Is that what you wanted to say? That you dream about me?”
“I don’t - It’s more like I live a lot of different lives. With you.”
Dan looks momentarily thunderstruck (or what Phil imagines someone being thunderstruck would look like: shocked and awed, having witnessed something wonderful). “I- I feel like I would be aware of that.”
“It’s difficult to -”
“I’m guessing I have dimples in them.” Dan touches one side of his mouth and then the other. “That’s why you’re always looking for them.”
“It’s not -”
“I would make them, if I could. I don’t know how to make dimples, exactly, but I would do it if you wanted me to. And whatever else you said. Freckles, and laughter lines. I could-”
“You don’t have to -”
“But you’re always looking for them,” Dan says. “Like you’re trying to find someone else’s face.”
Phil bows his head. There is a sudden ringing in his ears, a cracking at his feet like he’s standing on ice, on pieces of glass, so much blue behind his eyes. The feeling of having gone too far, said too much too fast, why couldn’t he have just waited, always doing too much of everything, is heavy on his shoulders.
“They’re not different lives with me, they’re lives with someone else.” Dan mirrors his earlier gesture, raises his arms and drops them. It’s just me. Here I am. “Or dreams about someone else.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re you or a version of you, or me, or if they’re real at all, but what I do know is that you say things sometimes, and bring me things, that are the same everywhere. And I don’t know what that’s trying to tell me.”
“The wedding invitation?” Dan guesses. “These?” He picks up the bluebells again.
“You’re always giving me blue. There’s always blue, everywhere.”
“You like blue,” Dan exclaims. “I like you in blue.”
“Oh.” Phil blinks. “Thanks.”
Dan says, “You don’t,” and “It doesn’t,” before he shakes his head, fingers to temples. “It doesn’t have to mean anything, the dreams. You’re overthinking it. We just met in a coffee shop, that happens all the time, it’s the start of, like, seventy percent of all fan fictions, it’s a trope, it’s a normal thing, can’t you just -”
“Exactly what? Is it that unbelievable that I would walk in here? Am I that unbelievable?”
“But you didn’t just walk in here, you said that you felt like someone was calling you.” Phil, finally, feels ready to play one of the last cards, one of the pieces he’s been holding close. As soon as he feels ready he immediately doubts himself, as is standard in almost everything he decides to do, but he says it anyway. “That’s how I knew your name. From the - the dreams.”
Dan huffs, almost a laugh, almost an of course I’m called Dan everywhere, that’s so boring, an uplift at the end that’s almost something else. “So what are you saying exactly? That this is all predestined because you dreamt about me?”
Phil says, “Yes,” because it’s easier than saying no, I’m not sure if this is real at all.
When they go to the piano, a tradition, an inevitability, Dan plays something new. A thing that could be the closing number of a show. It makes Phil want to sit on the piano top and look down at him. He doesn’t say so. He wishes he hadn’t said anything at all, is conscious of having made it too light, revealing only one line from a whole book, one piece of a mirror.
“What does Dream Me do?” Dan asks, still playing. “For a job or, like, in life.”
“Lots of things.”
“No other lawyers though.”
“No, that’s just you.”
Dan huffs again. His huffs are starting, to Phil at least, to sound like sobs. “Lucky me.”
“You don’t have to be a lawyer. You could quit.”
“And do what?”
“Whatever you wanted.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Dan says. “I’ve never really wanted anything. I’m a really - I procrastinate or I sort of spoil the things that I like by being casual about them. I always want wanting things was too obvious and too much of yourself on show and I just quit everything I liked and just ended up.” He stops playing, abruptly, leaving a note in mid air. “Like this. Just, like this.”
Phil waits, but nothing happens. The note stays where it is, the closing number never closes. “It can be scary sometimes. To want things.”
“I never wanted anything until I met you,” Dan replies. Phil puts his thumb to where the dimples should be, left and then right. “It’s not even wanting at this point, it’s just like longing, or pining, or my day just not seeming right until I’ve seen you. I don’t even remember what else I do without you.” Phil coasts his fingertips over invisible freckles. “Or if there’s anything outside of you at all. I want to meet all the other yous too.”
“You’d probably just find me really boring then.”
“Not possible,” Dan says. “You’re the least boring person I’ve ever met.”
This, Phil knows, is the moment where he says something, where he says I’m in love with you. Everywhere. In all ways. This version of you, this you who didn’t meet me, or met me too late, I want to smooth out every frown line you have. He wants, very badly, to pull this Dan into some other reality with him, is that a thing that he could do, a light and gentle place where Dan could be happy, shrug that awful coat off his shoulders. This is the moment where he kisses Dan, his hands cupped around Dan’s face, fingers under his jaw. But.
“I think if I do things, in the - if I cross lines, in the dreams, then they end.”
Dan blinks. “Cross lines?”
“Or, do what I want to do.”
“Oh,” Dan says. Then sudden realisation, “Oh.”
“That’s why I’m not telling you things. Everything.”
“What if I just tell you instead?”
“Then I’ll just want to say them back and it’ll be impossible.”
“Has that happened to any of them?”
Phil still has Dan’s face cradled in his hands. His fingers are still splayed, searching for things that don’t exist here. He says, “I think so. I think one got lost. Or broken.”
“You think you broke it?”
“You’re so sad here. Why are you so -”
“I haven’t been that sad since I met you.” Dan leans away, out of Phil’s tentative grasp. “Maybe that’s the whole point. I’m not unbelievable, but you are.”
Phil says, “That’s -”
“Just tell me what you want to tell me. What do you think is going to -”
“That this stops, I can’t get back here, I think that’s -”
“Just tell me.”
“I can’t, I don’t want to lose -”
“I think I might be in love with you,” Dan interrupts. “That’s me telling you.”
There is silence where Phil thinks there should be noise. A hundred mirrors falling from a hundred walls and smashing. Fracturing beneath his feet. He says, “Dan,” helplessly, like he is falling through glass, drowning in petals.
“That’s what the signals are for,” Dan adds. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I’m leaving them everywhere. You never work out what the calls mean.” He shifts further away, to the other end of the piano bench, and resumes playing.
Phil leans further towards him, reaches out. “Dan.”
Dan doesn’t turn around. “Wake up.”
--4. slow show--
Phil grabs at Dan’s shirt, at his too long sleeves, frantic in a way that he never usually is when he wakes up. Dan makes a startled sound. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just me.” He allows himself to be pulled closer, turning to avoid Thor being crushed between them. “Were you having a nightmare? It’s okay. You’re awake now.”
Phil says, “Am I?”
“What?” Dan frowns. “Of course you are. Do you want me to pinch you?”
“No.” Phil is gasping for air, like he’s been falling. “No, I’m awake. It’s fine. It wasn’t - I don’t know if it was a bad dream or not. It wasn’t -”
“You were reaching for something,” Dan says. “Your hands were like.” He extends his free arm, opens his fingers into Phil’s hair. “Like that. Like you were trying to get to something far away.”
“PJ knows. He was here earlier. Maybe earlier. He asked me and I told him.”
“I know,” Dan says. “I know. He came to the office.”
Phil asks, “How was he?” and winces as he does because it’s an awful question with an obvious answer.
Dan winces right back. Phil feels it. “I mean, he was sad. I knew he would be. He said some stuff but I think he knew, he knows how I feel and it’s just. It could have been different. If I’d waited.”
“If I hadn’t waited,” Phil says.
“He said that you said some things about dreams.”
“I did.” Phil feels shy, suddenly, not used to being around Dan when he knows, when they both know, all of the inner workings of his heart, everything on display. He’s unpractised at actually holding eye contact with someone that he’s been staring at, holding that person’s wrist in the loop of his fingers. He’s blushing, he can feel it.
“Dreams about me?”
“I don’t dream about anything except you.”
“You’re blushing,” Dan says, sounding mystified by the fact.
“Well, I’m not used to looking at you. Or, you looking back.”
“I was always looking back.”
“I don’t know what we do now. I never really thought about this part.”
Dan raises his eyebrows. “What? Not at all.”
“It seemed too impossible.”
Dan laughs, the high pitched explosion of his genuine laugh, delighted and amazed, dimples deep. “Anything’s possible, Phil. We can do anything you want.”
The fact of anything being possible seems too infinite for Phil, the list of things he wants to do with Dan, the things which can now probably become reality, if he just asks, are too much, too detailed. He trips from happy to having one foot solidly in overwhelmed. His own voice in his head, but more heavily accented, telling him to slow down. He says, “I wouldn’t know where to start. I only ever just want you. I’m not - You were always so far away.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Dan says, sounding genuinely apologetic.
“I love you. A lot. A ridiculous amount. I thought everyone could see it, all over my face, in everything that I did, and that someone was just going to call me out on it at some point and I wouldn’t know what to say because I’d never said it aloud. And I used to wish that PJ would get transferred away but you wouldn’t be able to go, or all these elaborate things, like, really awful things because I was too spineless to say anything, and just thinking about scenarios where we could be together when I should have just -”
“Maybe that’s why you dream about me so much. They’ll probably stop now.”
Phil blinks, feels his grip on Dan’s wrist tighten without meaning to. “What?”
“Now that we’re together,” Dan explains, gently. “They’ll probably stop. I’m not going anywhere. I - I used to do that too. Think of ways things could change, but with us still there in the middle. It wasn’t fair. All of that when I could have just told you. And you weren’t - I couldn’t see it on your face. Sometimes I could and I’d think, or I’d hope, but then you’d just shut down and not look at me and I’d think, oh, maybe not, it’s just me wishing. But you were wishing too.”
“I don’t wish,” Phil says. “I need - there’s things I need to tell you. About the dreams.”
“You can tell me later.” Dan, finally, pulls Phil out of the chair and to his feet. Phil does not let go of his wrist so they end up stumbling, tangled together, to deposit Thor back in his pen. “You can tell me everything. I’ll listen to all the details. But we’ve got things to do first.”
Phil trips over his own feet, over his own words, over his own voice, voices, jumping around his head, over and into the anticipation of what’s about to happen. He says, “Things?”, a word that opens like a flower, breaking into petals. Things.
Dan laughs again. “Yes, things. I’ve been waiting for so long. Let’s go home.”
Phil says, “Home?” because he’s not entirely sure where that is here. He has a vague recollection of a lot of disorganized games and dvds, a lamp shaped like a cactus, but no real memory of when he was last there, when he was last somewhere that Dan was not. “I don’t know how to get there.” He starts to move towards the door, taking Dan with him. “I don’t know -”
“Hey,” Dan says. “It’s okay.” He touches the flush of Phil’s cheek. “You seem like you’re freaking out, don’t - I’m - This is happening. For real. And, I know that it wasn’t ideal and I know there’s PJ and I know and I’m never going to stop feeling bad about that, I’m not, but I also never stopped feeling the way I felt about you when I saw you first and you nearly fell in the otter pool and I thought if you had fallen in then I would have jumped in after you. No question. And then every day I just kept thinking that you were falling further away from me.”
“I wasn’t,” Phil whispers (he feels like he should whisper, now they’re saying things aloud). “Or, I was, but not intentionally. It was just, it was self preservation, I just wanted - I needed for you to be happy, even if that wasn’t with me.”
Thor lets out a series of chirps, frantic sounding, that only stop when Phil turns back to him.
“You didn’t say goodbye to him,” Dan points out. “They’re clingy, remember? I know my meerkat facts.”
“They weren’t all meerkat facts.”
“No,” Dan says. “A lot of them were just about me.”
Thor clings to Phil’s sleeve when he pets him, and then tries to climb the side of the pen, chirping the entire time. Phil can still hear the chirping when they’ve left (after he’d had to gently disengage tiny meerkat claws from his sweater) when they’ve walked from the enclosure to the car park, stopped next to an ocean blue Corsa that, apparently, belongs to him, judging by the keys he’d found in his pocket.
He has the keys crushed in his palm when Dan pushes him against the expanse of metallic blue and kisses him, open mouthed and rushed. Phil thinks that there should be some release of tension, a lightning strike or a swell of music, a confirmation that this is happening, he cannot believe that this is happening, that the world is still standing around them, that there’s Dan still talking, still saying something like finally and, confusingly, it’s not too much anymore. Phil mumbles, “It’s all too much,” somewhere near Dan’s chin and then, “Don’t let me fall asleep.”
Dan blinks, Phil feels the movement of his eyelashes. “What?”
“I mean it, don’t let me fall asleep.”
“What? Not ever?”
“I don’t know how that’s -”
“I’m serious,” Phil says. “I can’t. I can’t leave.”
Dan’s expression changes from confused to almost understanding. “Is this too fast? Am I rushing? I didn’t mean to, I just - We can -” He starts to step away, Phil holds him in place. “I didn’t really - I sort of invited myself and we did only just.” He stops. “Tell me what I can do.”
Phil has the distinct feeling that if they drive away, if they leave the sanctuary, then the whole thing will fold closed behind them and disappear. Or they’ve gone past that point already, had passed it as soon as Dan touched his forehead. He cannot put any of these into words, there is no combination that he can make Dan understand. Dan, if I fall asleep I don’t think I’ll wake up here again. Maybe I should have stayed waiting. I would have waited. I don’t know if that would have been better.
“It’s okay,” Dan repeats. He has one hand on Phil’s hip, the other in his hair. “We’ve got so much time. Just say what you want to do.”
“That’s an impossible question,” Phil says, still whispering. “There’s too many things.”
Phil thinks Dan hopelessly, over and over. It’s too late to pick one. In picking one he may never be aware of getting the others. He doesn’t know where the worry is coming from, like he’s getting nostalgic for a thing that’s only just starting. This is stupid he tells himself, the voice in his head. You’re being ridiculous.
Dan starts to say, “Is this too-” again.
“I want you to come home with me,” Phil interrupts and the ground beneath his feet shakes.
As he drives (stalling constantly, missing every second gear) he says, “So, the dreams,” and “I should tell you about the dreams,” but can never quite finish the sentences, cannot look in the rear view mirror at the sanctuary disappearing. “It’s hard to explain. They’re hard to explain.”
“You don’t have to try.” Dan is beaming, drumming his fingers on the dashboard like he’s playing the piano. Phil never quite understood what that mean, to beam, to be so happy that it radiated from every pore, but he does now. It hurts his eyes to look at him. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
Phil misses the turning to his street, has to do an awkward three point turn to get back, and then stops in the middle of the pavement when Dan says hey you never said your street was the same name as the sanctuary because he lives on Zils Street. Of course he does. It seems important but he doesn’t know why. Phil Dan says. You’re staring at it like you forgot. Phil kisses him again, hands inside Dan’s ink stained coat, feels the wingbeat of his heart like it’s going to flutter right out of his chest. He wasn’t sure if he had much of a heart left, bruised as it must be, but it’s there. Dan sighs. Phil sighs back. He doesn’t know which house is his, which room, which floor; none of that really seems to matter.
Dan pulls back, only a small way. “You left a candle in your window?”
Phil says, “What?” and looks up. There’s a candle in one of the second floor windows behind them. “That’s not -”
“I remember having a conversation about this. You and your scented candles.” Dan tilts his head to one side. “It’s like having a signal that you’re home. If it wasn’t a massive fire hazard.”
They kiss by the front door, by the post boxes in the lobby, every third step of the stairs, the awful porcelain wallpaper outside Phil’s door. He presses Dan against every inch of space he can find, puts himself between Dan and the rest of the world.
Dan’s pockets are full of blue paper, the kind that is in Thor’s pen (Thor Phil thinks, suddenly horrified. He should have brought Thor), it scatters over the hallway of Phil’s flat and rises in clouds around their footsteps, follows them around the rooms like a breadcrumb trail. Phil says, “Why?” and plucks one from the air. “Why do you have these?” Dan leans in and Phil holds him back. Not quite at arm’s length but far enough.
Dan smiles, unsure, and he’s so beautiful here, with his untidy hair and his tired eyes, smudges of ink at his collar and his sleeves. “Are you -”
“No, I just wanted to look at you.”
“Oh.” Dan hesitates, awkward under the attention. “You can do that whenever.”
“I love you here.”
“You don’t love me anywhere else?”
“You can’t let me fall asleep, I’ll find - I’ll drink black coffee forever, I’ll hold my eyes open, I -”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Dan doesn’t look concerned, just incredibly fond. He smooths out something on Phil’s forehead and Phil wonders how he’d ever convinced himself, or pretended, that expression meant anything else. The waste, he thinks, the complete waste of time.
“We could have been doing this,” he tells Dan. “For so long.”
“You have no idea how much I wanted to. On that date, when you - when we left in the taxi and you and Chris were still there, I was so - I felt it, like someone had punched me or something, and then I felt like such a coward because I wanted you so much but I never did anything about it. I thought I was being so obvious and giving you so many signals but I wasn’t at all, was I? I should -”
“I think you were,” Phil says. “Being obvious. I just didn’t see it at first and when I did it just seemed like wishful thinking.”
“Like your dreams coming true?” Dan instantly wrinkles his nose. “No, forget I said that, it’s -”
“It’s exactly right,” Phil interrupts. “That’s exactly what it was.”
He makes black coffee, drinks three cups, it makes his mouth taste bitter and then Dan’s mouth taste bitter in return. He pulls Dan’s coat off, then his shirt, makes all the blue on the floor rise and spin in mini tornados. He kisses Dan’s dimples, his freckles, his laughter lines, like he’s missed them and is happy to have found them again, pushes Dan onto a bed he doesn’t recognise in a flat he doesn’t recognise, presses their foreheads together, and says, “I love you everywhere. That’s what I should have said earlier.”
Dan, breathless, looks like he doesn’t remember when earlier was. “Okay.”
Phil’s eyelids, despite everything, close. It feels like the gentle shutting of a book that he’ll never be able to read again.
--2. epistolary romance--
Dan is sat cross-legged on his side, wearing silver sequins and expensive looking loafers, looking like he’d spent an hours in an unbroken mirror styling his hair. He doesn’t look up.
Phil is so taken by surprise that he almost walks right into the plants. “Have you been out?”
“What, this?” Dan shakes his right arm so the sequins catch the light. “Nope. I just woke up with it on. I told you that happens sometimes.” He hesitates. “All the time.”
“Is that why you never came out here? Because you looked different all the time?”
Dan shrugs. “I didn’t know how to explain it.”
“I think I’d understand it better than most people.” Dan laughs, very softly. “Are you a composer? Really?” Dan nods. “How long have you been doing that?”
“Is this is a job interview?”
“I want to know.”
“I don’t remember.” Dan sighs. “How long have you been editing?”
Phil says, “I don’t remember exactly.”
“I have memories, but they don’t feel like memories at all really, it’s just like someone else telling me that I did them. It’s like I woke up in someone else’s life and then just got really scared by it because I kept waking up here. And other places.”
“And then you broke your mirrors.”
Dan smiles. He still hasn’t looked up at Phil, but Phil watches the corner of his mouth uplift. “Wasn’t as helpful as I was expecting it to be.”
“What were you expecting it to be?”
“The mirrors are important,” Dan says. “Or, they were important. I thought that if I broke them then I would stay here and just wake up as myself and that would be that, but -”
“I don’t know what you mean by stay here.”
“- I don’t think it’s really my decision to make.” Dan stops, finally turns and frowns at Phil. “What did you say?” His frown deepens as he looks Phil, obviously just fallen out of bed, up and down. “What’s wrong?”
Phil lies. “Nothing.”
“I should have come out before. Properly. I kept leaving the notes but - I should have just said. It just got scarier the longer I left it and I thought that if I did come out then I’d break it all before I saw you, but -”
“Then what made you do it yesterday?”
Dan says, “Yesterday?”
“Was it yesterday? I don’t know.”
“I felt like something was wrong and, I don’t know, that you needed to see me so you knew I was really here and -”
“I’ve been needing to see you this whole time.”
“Okay.” Dan pulls one of sequins from his jacket loose, then another. “I just wanted to keep it - I liked it as it was, with the notes. I like it as it is, but I know that you don’t - not that you don’t but that you want me to take that step with you, and it’s not even about getting a dog, or what it represents -”
“ - it’s about you and me. And I guess about keeping us safe, and I just wanted to keep us on these balconies, but I couldn’t even do that. Keeping away from you is impossible. I’m always chasing after you. But I wanted to prolong it, for a bit. Talking to you through notes. It’s like leaving comments on your videos but with less teenage desperation.”
Phil feels like they’re filming a video now, only Dan hasn’t told him what it’s about, or given any indication of the theme or the point, and so he’s just sat uselessly on Dan’s right, trying to think of something to say that shows that he’s following. That he’s totally in on the joke. If it is a joke. It doesn’t really feel like one.
--32. the cereal aisle--
--2. epistolary romance--
“I know I haven’t been in much for the past few days -”
“Few weeks,” PJ corrects. “Weeks.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’m going to come in today. Or tomorrow, I’ll come in tomorrow.”
PJ’s tone softens. “No, I didn’t mean to sound harsh, I was only - If there’s something going on, and I feel like there is, then you can tell me. You know that.”
Phil says, “The Dorothy Clark trailer.” PJ makes an anguished noise. “No, listen. What do you think it means?”
“It doesn’t mean anything, Phil, it’s the same trailer we’ve done a hundred times. It’s a standard art student project trying to use too many themes and references and you can’t keep hold of any of them. Plus, you have to be behind on the deadline for the tone by now. It was, like, a month ago. At least.”
“What?” Phil feels like he was handed the trailer yesterday. “And, this one’s different. I feel like it’s trying to tell me something.”
“Tell you something?”
“I don’t know. Like she’s trying to be helpful or something, she wanted me to do it remember, I think she’s trying to give me a hint, but I don’t get it. PJ, will you just watch it again and tell me what you think it means. Please.”
“Fine,” PJ says. “Give me a sec.” He hangs up.
Phil cradles his phone in his hands and waits for PJ’s photo to reappear. When it does (PJ on a pebbled beach, wind in his curls) he only lets it ring once. “What did you think?”
“I think it deliberately makes no sense. But also maybe that she wants someone, the people in the trailer, to go back to a house? Is it a romance? I feel like it is but one of them is always trying to keep hold of the other one. I don’t know, Phil, why is everything yellow? It’s so - “
“But you think she wants me to go to a house.”
“Why do you keep saying you? Is this about you? Why am I not in it?” When Phil doesn’t respond PJ adds, “Fine, yes, I do. It says a house out of time, and what’s gonna happen when they go back to the house on whatever street. I guess it’s meant to be mysterious. Just, finish it. She paid. Ages ago.”
“I’ll come into the office,” Phil says. “I’ll work on it there.”
“Sure,” PJ replies, obviously unbelieving.
When Phil rewatches the trailer later, it’s no longer yellow at all, but varying shades of blue.
--1. absent treatment--
“Something’s changing here,” Mrs Howard says to Phil, when he and PJ have taken up their usual positions (PJ upstairs, Phil in the parlour). “For all of us.”
Phil almost spills his tea. “Pardon?”
“We’re all in the wrong place here, I told you. You think - you think it’s wish fulfillment and it’s lovely but it’s not.” She casts her arm out, sweeps across the room. “Look at this.”
“I don’t know what you mean -.”
“I only wanted us to spend time together.” Her voice has started to crack, a sign of the sobbing that’s about to start. Phil readies himself. “That’s all. I wanted us to all be be in the same place.”
Phil says, “You wished for that?” just as PJ walks into the room, a stack of banknotes in his hand, and nods frantically at the front door. A signal that Phil does not miss.
He meets Dan at Great Ormond Street, where the banknotes get disposed of in the donation box and PJ leaves to go and get very drunk, Phil presumes with Chris. Dan is wearing a purple flower in the button of his coat, a leftover from the all purple wedding, and seeing him without blue makes Phil want to stamp every other colour in the world into the ground. He doesn’t. He says, “Can we go to your rooms tonight?” instead and doesn’t know why.
Dan looks as surprised as Phil feels. “My -”
“But my landlord -”
“I can be quiet, I can be so quiet.”
“You hate the house,” Dan points out, not unfairly. “It reminds you of -”
“It’s -” Phil searches for the word and can only come up with, “Important.”
Dan says, “Yes,” in the manner of someone who can never deny Phil anything. “You can. Just don’t get me evicted.”
“Why? You can live with me.”
Dan gets a beautifully hopeful, and familiar, expression on his face. Phil hears his own voice saying come and stay at mine for the week , just live with me, there’s room, it saves you bringing your laundry back and forth and why don’t we just move to London together? He’s seen that expression before, so many times. “I don’t know about that. You’d be seeing me at my worst if I was around all the time.”
Phil’s heard that before too. “I’m sure I’ll cope.” He takes the purple flower from Dan’s coat and puts that in the donation box too. “Sorry. I just - It’s strange not seeing the blue.”
“I never wear blue, I always just give it to you. And it was their colour scheme. I told you, there’s always a colour, they’ve always just met. It’s the same story with minor details changed.”
“That’s all anything is at the moment, isn’t it? Mrs Howard said we’re all in the wrong place.”
“Mrs Howard is the one who lost her daughter?”
“Literally,” Phil says. “Lost her. They think she’s still in the house somehow, like she’s there and not there at the same time.”
“Like the man with the mirrors.”
Phil is saying, “I suppose,” before he realises what Dan has said, and then is saying, “Wait, what did you -” far too late.
“I have to get to the office and file this.” Dan pats vaguely at his pocket, where his notebook must be. His work notes aren’t any more organised than his dream ones. Dan says, sometimes, that he could just file the same article every time and no one would ever notice. “But I’ll meet you.” He touches Phil’s wrist, then his elbow. “Later.”
They never decide on times, Phil realises, as he watches Dan walk away (shoulders hunched, like he’s bracing himself to step into a storm), they just say later and somehow arrive in places at the same moment. Or one arrives to find that the other is already there and waiting. Phil is continually turning corners and finding Dan there, walking out of work to see him sat at the wall of the British Library, unfolding like a (very tall) flower when he sees Phil approach. Dan looks surprised by it, every time.
Phil goes back to the office to update the Howard file, writes wrong time, everyone’s in the wrong time. He has not told Dan about vet, the possible loss of it, Dan is not yet over the ending of twelve thirty until four, but Phil is sure that it’s gone and already misses the feeling of holding the meerkat in his arm, misses Dan in his white coat (as much as he misses Dan with his young face and too long hair? As much he misses Dan in oversized sweaters and curls?) Phil is always missing Dan, even when he’s finding him.
Mrs Howard, when they’d left, stood in the front porch and shouted, “Don’t come back!” with such vehemence that PJ whispered what did you say to her? “Don’t come back! Go to where you’re supposed to be!”
Phil wishes now that he’d responded. That he’d said I don’t know where that is.
--24. skipped beats--
Phil says, “I wasn’t sleeping,” which is a lie. He has a ridge across his forehead from where he’d been leaning against the seat in front. “Or maybe - a little bit. I’m just tired a lot lately and none of these other pianists are him, so -”
“You’re saving your energy,” PJ remarks. “For when he comes on.”
“We shouldn’t have sat in the second row in that case.” PJ shifts in his seat. “Though, it’s been, like, two hours. I could do with a nap too. Why can’t you speak to him at the library like a normal person?”
Phil, horrified, says, “No. He always looks stressed at the library. He looks calm when he’s playing, it’s the best time to be - to introduce myself. To be like, hi I’m Phil, I’m the guy who stares at you when we’re in the library at the same time, why are you studying Law when you apparently hate it so much, is it cool that I worked out where you play piano on weekends and came here because if it’s not then that’s fine, I get it -”
“And I would like to take you on a date,” PJ adds, eyes slightly wide. “Maybe just say hi I’m Phil, your playing was awesome and I would like -”
“You to come home with me.”
“You’re skipping several steps here. You haven’t even spoken to him yet.”
“I feel like I have.”
“Not this again,” PJ says, longsufferingly, and then, “Wait, no Phil, don’t fall back asleep, it’s -”
--6. dan howell--
Sometimes he feels like they’re in a snow globe, not a particularly pretty one, a series of scenes; Manchester train station, the balcony of their old flat, some awful youtube influencers party. A snow globe that someone is always tipping at one side, always always sending him falling into Dan.
Dodie listens to all of this with her head on one side. She’s wearing a sunshine coloured sweater that’s at least five sizes too big, the elbows are almost at her wrists. She’d ordered caramel macchiatos, even though Phil finds that he doesn’t like the taste of them anymore. She says, “You’ve been there for too long.”
“You’re going to have to make a decision at some point.”
Phil says, “I’m not understanding you.”
Dodie sighs. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Phil blinks, says, “I’m sorry,” and tries to stop whatever expression he’d been making. It probably looked sad. He can feel the frown at his eyebrows. “It’s just - you’re very calm about this.”
Dodie shrugs, the collar of her sweater falls off one shoulder. “I made up my mind pretty quickly. But it was easier for me.”
“Made up your mind? Past tense? Which one?” Phil asks, and then finds the answer himself. “The coffee shop. Right? You played music there, I remember, you said it was the right one for you. Except I didn’t know it was you. Or. You’re old. In the Hipster Me one.”
Dodie says, “Hipster you?”
“Not me, it’s - Dan named them.”
“Right,” Dodie says. “Dan. Let’s talk more about Dan.”
She doesn’t say it in a mean way, but the again is obvious. Phil has talked about Dan a lot since he got here, he realises, as soon as he got to the table. Had he even asked Dodie anything about herself? Probably not. Everything had been an explosion of Dan, Dan would like it here, Dan used to pretend to like this coffee just because I did, it’s strange that we haven’t met before, Dan always used to say, you’ve met Dan, haven’t you.
“Sorry,” Phil says. “I talk about him a lot when I’m nervous.” Dodie raises both eyebrows. “I talk about him all the time.”
“So are you nervous all the time?”
“More than usual recently. I suppose.”
“We should talk about him. It’s because of him that it’s happening. I wished for music, to be better at music and to be successful and -” She catches herself mid-sentence. “You wished for him.”
“But I didn’t. That’s the point. I didn’t. Why would I wish for something I already have?”
“I already have music,” Dodie says. “Just not necessarily in the way that I wanted it.”
Phil lets that settle for a moment (it feels heavy, like the sentence should have dropped from the air and broken the table they’re sat at, but he doesn’t know Dodie well enough to even offer anything in reply). “I didn’t wish for anything. I’ve thought about it, I’ve tried to remember, and I didn’t. I don’t wish.”
“You don’t wish? For anything?”
“I’m a realist.”
“Cool,” Dodie says. “I’m not. Is he?”
“I -” Phil thinks. Dan, really, is a mixture of a realist and a dreamer. He has extremely dark, almost nihilistic, thoughts a lot of the time but he also buys flowers just because they make the flat look pretty, blowing the dropped petals into Phil’s hair. Sometimes, when they see a dog or a particularly chubby baby, he scrunches his eyes closed, like he can’t bear to look at something so cute. When he says things that make Phil smile or laugh he stores the words away and repeats them when Phil is sad or lost. Phil feels himself frown. He repeats them.
Dodie misreads the frown. “Oh, he’s not. That’s okay. We can -”
“No, it’s not that, it’s -” Phil grabs the thought and tries to hold onto it. I’ll leave a candle one of the other Phils pipes up. It’s just so that you’ll find me. Is this a signal did it work don’t miss it. You need to learn what his calls mean. Dan, yawning, amongst the foundations of a pillow fort, you’re not always the one doing the waiting.
“Your face is doing a lot of complicated things,” Dodie observes.
Phil says, “He says a lot of things that he’s said to me before. In the - in the dreams. He repeats things that he’s already said. He’s always looking for me. He’s always the one who does the -” he can’t think of the right word and so comes up with, “Arriving. He always does the arriving. He makes the appointments.”
“He wakes me up. Everywhere.” He suddenly leans over to Dodie who leans forward to meet him when anyone else probably would have lent away. “What are you going to do?”
“Break the mirrors,” Dodie replies.
Phil says, “What?” in a voice that he doesn’t quite recognise, all the Phils at once, speaking over each other, a symphony in his head. “You can’t.”
“The best part of my day was going to sleep. Is going to sleep. I can’t wait to see which one’s next or what’s happening. I’m asleep, like, 80% of the time. That’s not - I can’t carry on like that. I’ve got so attached to them and they’re not real, Phil. What are we supposed to do? You can’t live all these different lives at once, that’s exhausting.”
“But there’s no choice,” Phil says. “Is there? If smashing the mirrors stops them, then I’m just here. That’s not choosing, that’s -”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t pick here?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“It kinda is.” Dodie shrugs. “And I didn’t say you’d break them here, you’d break them all in whatever one you wanted to stay in. Then there would be no way back.”
“That’s - how do you know that?”
“I don’t. I’m just guessing. I’ll probably test it.”
“But what if you don’t come back?”
“I don’t think it’s that I wouldn’t come back, I just would only be aware of the one I was in. Does that make sense?”
Phil exclaims, louder than he means to, “Nothing makes sense.”
Dodie gives no indication that she’s noticed him raising his voice. “I wished for music, and I have it, just in lots of different ways. I’m old, looking back at a career. I’m successful, but not too successful. I’m a waitress who plays shows on the weekends to two or three people. I make music for film trailers. I -”
Phil says, “Film trailers?”
“I’m only trying to be helpful.”
“I spoke to PJ and Louise. They’re in my -” he hesitates. Is it even right to call them dreams anymore, what even are they at this point. “My, whatever, sometimes. PJ is always my friend and when I spoke to him that’s what he wished for, he wanted us to spend more time together, so we always do, and he remembers but not very much, and I don’t - I didn’t wish for anything. I mean that. I didn’t.”
Dodie reaches down, into her bag, and pulls out what looks like a parchment scroll, thick paper the colour of butter. When she unrolls it across the table (with no real care for the cups and plates) Phil sees that it’s a spider diagram, but huge. There’s a small doodle of Dodie in the centre and a hundred branches around her. Each branch has a title and then several twigs shooting from it. They say real? and dream? and, sometimes, sunshine? She says, “This is my dream journal.”
Phil instantly feels protective of his boring spreadsheet. “But you’ve only got dreams for some of them, you’ve written real after more than one.”
Dodie shrugs. “I have a plan.”
“We go back to Zils Street and stay there overnight.”
Phil thinks that having a conversation with Dodie is somewhat like trying to keep hold of several hyperactive kittens, or like the dog calendar shoot all over again. Everything is very sweet and lovely but you can’t keep their attention for long and they keep bouncing off onto new paths and tripping over their own feet. He says, “Why? What will that do?”
“I feel like we should go back there. That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
“You could have told me that here.”
“I didn’t expect you to be so slow on the uptake.”
Phil laughs in spite of himself. “Fine. If you think it’s going to help.”
“Cool. Bring a mallet or something.”
“Sure, I’ve got one of those lying around.” Phil hesitates. “What for? No, I know what for, but you just said that you chose -”
“It’s not real,” Dodie says. “None of them are. They’re wish fulfilment, they give you what you want in a hundred different ways, they’re just like reading stories you wrote about yourself, where people act how you want them to, and things happen and you end up, or I ended up, just getting fixated on them all. Look at you, you made a spreadsheet.”
“You drew a tree!”
“They just multiple,” Dodie says. “One ends when you get what you want and then another one starts. Haven’t you noticed any new ones?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe. I don’t know, it’s been a bit much.”
“Which is why we have to end them. I’m writing an opera in one, Phil, an opera. I think about it all the time, they’re all just blending into each other, it’s not achieving anything other than making me tired all the time and not even existing here. I’m existing everywhere else. Do you not feel like that?”
“I love him,” Phil replies, like it’s the answer to any question that could ever be asked of him. “And they’re all him, but in different ways. Couldn’t I just - I could just end each one, I think I know how, I could -”
“It never ends.” Dodie looks sympathetic but is already rolling her scroll back up. “It will never end. We’ll go tomorrow night. I’ll book it for a rehearsal or something. Bring an instrument so it looks like we’re filming.”
“An instrument,” Phil states, flatly. “Does a rockband drum kit count?”
Dodie looks genuinely excited by the prospect. “Sure, we can write a song about dreams!”
She leaves the scroll behind when she flits out of the door (Dodie moves like she’s been picked up on the breeze and is carried places that are constant surprises to her), gives Phil strict instructions to not spill any coffee over it. He doesn’t, but it’s a close call when his third caramel macchiato arrives.
In the bottom right she has written A missing girl, a house out of time, what will happen when they go back to the house on Zils Street? and then, afterwards, in different colour ink. Come on Phil. You didn’t think I’d forgotten. You’re the least observant person I’ve ever met.
Then, again, so far into the corner that the letters blend into each other. You have to pick somewhere to live. You can’t have all of them.
--3. caramel macchiato--
Phil, in the doorway, nods. “I think I broke it.”
“While it was still on the wall? How?”
“I went too fast.”
Dan says, “Don’t start this again. I’ve been, like, rejected before, but this whole we can’t do anything or say anything because it’ll break a dream is -”
“I’m not rejecting you,” Phil exclaims, the thought is so impossible that he almost laughs. “How could I. Have you -”
“You’re not exactly accepting -”
“If I do something and then I can’t get back here to you I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know what to do now.”
“Phil.” Dan takes a step forward. “You can’t break dreams. Or get stuck in them. They’re meant to be nice. They’re meant to be about living things that you can’t have in reality. This -” he gestures between them. “Is not a dream. Would we be here, in a random coffee shop, if it was?”
Phil picks his words carefully, he doesn’t know which could be the one to start the crack, the glass under his feet. He speaks like he’s walking over ice. Dan scatters blue everywhere, every movement of his sleeve releases petals, and Phil doesn’t know if that’s a sign, if something is telling him that he’s close, so close, that if he just stepped forward as Dan was stepping forward then - “I think they can take place anywhere. It just matters if you’re there.”
Dan reaches out, as though they are very far away from each other. “Would it really be so -”
Phil says, “I have to,” which could mean anything. I have to not do this, want to do this, want this you, want all the yous, have everything at once no matter how tired that makes me, keep you at arms length because what would I do I lost two already. “Go back to the shop. I’ve been on break for a long time.” He wishes Dan would stop reaching, it only makes him want to reach back.
Dan pulls his hand back, and Phil regrets the wish instantly.
--2. epistolary romance--
Phil drops the Hello Kitty mug picked up from the kitchen when he was still half asleep, (rushing out here because he felt like he had to apologise to Dan somehow), right off the side of the balcony. “What?”
“It was me. They’re not your dreams, they’re mine. You’re just stuck in them.”
The mug apparently never hits the ground. There’s no smash, no sound at all. Phil says, “No, they’re not. No, I’m not. They’re mine.”
“Are we going to argue about this? Really? Remember what I said.”
Phil says, “When? Here?”
“You have to help me out here. I’m not -”
“Try a different way, where you actually say things out loud.”
“I wished,” Dan exclaims, finally above a monotone. “It’s always been me, I’m always trying to tell you, I’m always giving you things, I’m always telling you, Phil, but you remember more than me, I don’t get how you remember more when it’s -”
“What did you wish for?” The mug still hasn’t hit the ground.
“It’s obvious. Think about it. About what’s the same, in all of them.”
“Nothing’s the same except you and me.” Phil realises that Dan’s going to close the doors before he actually starts doing it. “No, wait, you can’t keep doing this.”
“You have to work it out,” Dan says, voice getting steadily quieter as he retreats further inside. “I don’t think I can tell you, that’s the point.”
The doors close at the exact moment that Hello Kitty, several stories below, finally reaches her destination, smashes across the pavement into shards of white porcelain.
--1. absent treatment--
“I slept.” Phil stands up. They touch hands, very briefly, index finger to index finger. “For a really long time.”
“Did anything happen?”
“I think one’s gone. Another one.”
Dan’s eyes widen. “Which one?”
“The vet. White coat. I haven’t remembered it for a while.”
Dan is very quiet until they reach Zils Street (as eerily silent as Phil remembers it, he has never been on a street where you could hear the scattering of leaves against pavement), when he whispers, “I think that was my favourite.”
Phil whispers back. “The vet?”
“Yes. I woke up really happy, a few nights ago, and, I don’t know, safe. It was like something wonderful had happened and I couldn’t remember what but I think it was from that one. Do you think that was it ending? Do they end when they’re happy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
They reach the house, lamp burning on the bottom floor, and Dan mumbles, “Right, remember, no knocking into anything, no loud noises, just follow me up to the fifth floor, don’t trip. I’ll play the piano, I’ll play anything you want.”
Phil says, “I thought we could go to the second floor. I - I think we should.”
“The - His room?” Dan frowns, touches his temples. “Why?”
Phil is remembering more, he’s told Dan so, a few times. He’s able to write down pieces of dialogue, small details that he’s noticed, how he’d felt at a given moment. How much he wants, how he waits. He’d wanted to watch Dan play the piano again but then. A girl in yellow telling him that you’d break them all in whatever one you wanted to stay in, then there would be no way back. How badly he wants to keep them all, to keep this one, to keep this one. Which one’s your favourite. Which one.
He says, “I love you here.”
Dan still has his hands on his temples. He blinks at Phil from under them, like looking into the sun. “You don’t love me anywhere else?”
“I love you,” Phil replies. “Here.”
(another Dan, in black, just back from a run, flushed and glowing, laughs in response to a thing that Phil cannot remember, tries to chase him around the flat so he can push a sweaty palm right through Phil’s hair. “Wait, stop, come back. Where are you going?”)
Dan smiles, almost in spite of himself. “I told you, if I get evicted -”
“And I told you, come and live with me. I’m not going anywhere.”
(“Wait, Phil, stop.” Still laughing, Phil loves every curl of his hair, every freckle on his face. “Wait for me. I’m not going to do anything. Wait.”)
- i know, i know, it's been 84 years.
- a huge thank you to ALL OF YOU for your continued enthusiasm and encouragement for a fic that hasn't been updated in over a year. i was pretty sure that everyone had forgotten about it by this point, but thanks to everyone who ever took the time to message me and say that wasn't so. there's too many of you to name personally but <3
- huge thanks to kuensukki for saving this chapter from gdoc deletion. without them there would be no update and we'd all be waiting another decade, so send them some love!