“Same as usual?” Steve asked as he always does.
“Same as usual,” I replied - as I always do.
It was bitterly cold and damp outside. Misty too, so the pub was unusually empty even for a weekday evening. While Steve was at the bar I parked myself at our favourite table near the fake inglenook with its fake log fire powered by real gas. For some reason Steve is better than I am at the art of getting served. I don’t seem to have the knack even when the place is almost deserted.
“So what have you been doing with yourself?” Steve asked as he carefully placed our pints in the exact centre of a beer mat. He’s fastidious like that although that’s something I only began to notice quite recently.
“Busy, busy, always busy...” I would have said more but Steve interrupted.
“How’s Will getting along?” He fixed me with that quizzical stare of his so I knew he had something to say about Will and couldn’t wait to get started on it. Steve is like that.
“Oh you know - business keep him on the move. I don’t know how he finds the time to stay in touch, but he always does.”
Steve said nothing. He just looked at me.
“Texts, emails and social media - the usual thing," I added. "He’s just as chatty as ever even though we haven’t managed to meet up in quite a while unfortunately.”
“And where is Will now?” Steve finally asked. He’d hardly touched his pint. He usually downs the first pretty quickly.
“Somewhere in Europe.” I tried to recall the gist of Will’s last text. It seemed important that I should recall it accurately but that was Steve. He has this annoying ability to focus very tightly on certain things. As if the details are important when usually they aren’t. At least not in my opinion.
“Somewhere in Europe. I see - but you don’t know exactly where?”
“Not exactly no. You know Will, always on the move.”
“I don’t actually – I don’t know him at all. He’s your mate - I’ve never once set eyes on him.”
“Oh you must have.” This was a genuine surprise because I’ve known Steve almost as long as I’ve known Will.
“Well you and I weren’t at school together,” I began –
“Of course we were.” Steve sounded angry now. Uncharacteristically angry I should say because he’s always very steady in that way – the emotional side of life.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Steve insisted. “You and I were in the same class at secondary school.”
“Oh yes – of course.” I had a vague idea that Steve might be right on this one but it had slipped my mind. I suppose we did know each other during our schooldays but it wasn’t particularly important to either of us at the time. That would be why I’d forgotten it.
“At school there was nobody called Will, or William or whatever – absolutely nobody.” Steve obviously intended to push this point for some reason, so to break the deadlock I went off to the bar and bought another couple of pints. I hadn’t actually finished mine because Will says alcohol could easily damage my health. Oh well - anything to keep the peace that’s me.
“I’ve wanted to say something about Will for ages,” Steve said as soon as I returned with the drinks.
“Do then.” I tried to finish my first pint before starting the second but found I didn’t want it. I already knew I’d never manage the second. That was just one benefit of Will’s advice on the essentials of a healthy lifestyle. Five a day fruit and veg, cycling, recycling and so on. Good advice all of it, but Steve wasn’t into that kind of thing.
“Well...” Steve pushed his second pint away as if he didn’t want his either. Maybe Will’s advice was getting to Steve too. No bad thing that.
“Yes?” I added, hoping for something positive for a change.
“Well it's this - I don’t think Will actually exists,” Steve continued.
“Really?” I laughed out loud, assuming this was a joke although I already knew it wasn’t. Will had warned me about Steve being a big fan of conspiracy theories. “Sooner or later he’ll say I don’t exist,” Will said more than once. And here it was over drinks in a quiet pub. One up for Will I’d say.
“Yes really. I don’t think you ever actually met Will.” Right or wrong Steve never lets go, I’ll give him that.
“You mean apart from the times when Will and I have enjoyed a drink together here in this pub?” I smiled because the conversation was becoming rather silly.
“Okay – okay so when did you last meet Will here in this pub?” Steve demanded.
“Oh I don’t know – about a year ago.”
“About a year ago?”
“About that. We don’t meet very often because as I keep saying, he’s too busy.”
“Why have I never seen him?”
I shrugged. “Your paths never crossed obviously.”
“Obviously. Does he refer to your meetings afterwards?”
“Let me see – no not straight away - no.”
“When exactly did he mention the cosy meet up you supposedly enjoyed together here in this pub about a year ago?”
“He mentioned it quite recently actually.” That was easy – Will had written about it in his last text, saying how much he’d enjoyed it. I remember that quite well because I was scratching my head for a while, trying to pinpoint one or two details Will mentioned. Nothing specific, just general observations he made about the weather and the beer. I remember that well enough.
“He didn’t mention it immediately afterwards – a year ago?”
“That’s because it didn’t happen.”
“That’s crazy, of course it did.”
“No it didn’t,” Steve insisted. “Will implanted that memory of meeting up here by using the fact that you feel you ought to remember it too. The thing is though – he only mentioned it after a suitable time has elapsed - long enough to blur your memory.”
“That’s just too crazy for words.”
“No it isn’t. Will isn’t real. Will is a bot, a machine, an artificial intelligence on the internet which has befriended you.”
“Even more bizarre. For one thing I’d be able to tell because a machine would make mistakes but Will never makes mistakes – never.”
“No because Will knows everything there is to know and in particular it knows everything about you. More than you do yourself.”
“No – Will is a friend, someone I’ve known for decades.”
“Will is a bot.”
I could see there was nowhere to go from there. Strange though. A few minutes later I decided to call it a day. A weird conversation I thought as I walked home through icy cold, deserted streets. Why would Steve claim he doesn’t know Will? I don’t get that at all because Will knows more about Steve than I do.
In fact I’ve decided to resolve the whole thing before I see Steve again. I’ll start by asking Will what he thinks of Steve’s wacky ideas because he’ll put me right. He always does.