Soft Footing

Mary Stephenson

02.04.2024 | 06.04.2024
Pièce Unique

After you ordered our drinks, I tried to reminisce with you about the room where we all slept as children. All five of our beds were slotted in that one room, and there was a window with a direct view of the front of the Blue Café.

The name and the interior of the café were incongruous: the walls were yellow, the chairs were metal, and the tables were a white-washed wood. This provoked in me a humming anxiety, a feeling similar to the one I got when you dressed our Barbie in clothes from other toys, which hung off her in strange ways, the proportions wrong, her glamour and perfection undermined. Once, I asked our mother if the furniture or interior of the Blue Café had been blue before, when she first moved into our house, but she said she couldn’t remember. You then asked her who arrived on the street first – her or the Blue Café - and she said she couldn’t remember that either. I didn’t believe her, as our mother remembered much more specific things than this – the exact time the BBC announced the death of Princess Diana (4.41pm), the t-shirt our father wore the last time she ever saw him (grey, with the Wilson logo), the name and parents’ names of the boy I was out with when she caught me smoking by the canal (Matthew, Mark and Debbie) - but why would she lie? My mother had been raised to see a good memory as key to winning an argument, essential to a moral high ground. Without memory, one could lose one’s grasp of the ways one had been wronged, and in turn, could no longer righteously perform stoicism. I suppose she just felt ambivalent about the Blue Café. It was simply another thing she passed by, anonymously, each day.


From our beds, you could see the front three tables of the Blue Café. If you sat on Jane’s bed you could only see the corner table, though you could hear the hum of the extractor fan loudly, a hum that I still associate with the café, even though it’s a common enough sound. The whirl retains a sense of promise to me. It is the sound of the coming future – the Blue Café was the outside world, with all the allure of the unfamiliar. Our brothers’ beds were too far back to see much at all, apart from the top of the Blue Café’s sign. I don’t remember ever talking to them much about the Blue Café, likely because it wasn’t one of the images that they lived alongside – they didn’t wake to it, didn’t see it behind their eyes while dreaming, didn’t picture it as part of the carousel of “home” motifs that they longed for when staying over at a friend’s house, scared by the weird smells of someone else’s mother’s cooking, the oddness of other people’s routines. But you and I had a prime view, from our beds, and watching the café bookended our days. We knew the regulars – Hat Man, the smokers, the beautiful boy with the folded paper bags, the lady who was scared of pigeons. The day you got rejected by Cardiff University, the final university not to have rejected you up until then, you came into our room with the letter still in your hand, and saw me sitting on my bed looking out the window, and told me in a sharp voice that I hadn’t heard before – the unfamiliarity, rather than the tone, shocked me - that staring at people was really weird and that I was a real freak for always looking out like that, always creeping on people, always being so fucking creepy just staring out the window making notes of who was eating what and who was arriving with who, which was strange to me because staring at the Blue Café was something that we’d always done together, and it was you, not me, that made the notes that time in the red diary you got given for Christmas.

The morning after that, you got straight in the shower when you woke up, even before Jane, who always showered first, so I watched the Blue Café alone. The sign seemed to pulse that morning, fuzzing like when you try and watch television while you’re crying, not that I cried because you weren’t watching the Blue Café with me like usual, I was fine with it, because all the regulars were there and it was comforting watching them. They weren’t my friends – we hadn’t formally met - but they weren’t exactly not my friends either, in the sense that I knew their predilections and could have picked any one of them out in the crowd, could have told anyone the rhythm of their day. The line between me and them was real enough – it was a thread that pulled me into a world of independence and preference and desire. I became a real proper person, as the smokers lit up for the first, second and third time. That morning, I felt sure that if I’d run in the opposite direction – away from the sound of the shower water on your head, out our back door, across the Lewiston Road and way, way, way down the hill they would have all been pulled with me, connected by teaming ribbons, banging and bumping on the ground as I sped away, like tin cans tied to the back of a wedding car.

That morning two women came into the café, about the age we are now. I hadn’t seen them before. The one with the feathery hair was holding a large bouquet of flowers, which is quite a dramatic look for seven thirty in the morning. And she kept on holding onto them even after she sat down, didn’t lay them on the wooden table, didn’t seem to want to let them out of her sight. The other woman – the one with the longer black coat - went up to the counter, even though one of the benefits of the Blue Café is that there is table service – they are quite quick actually, or they were that time we went in when Jane lost the key, and we saw the hand dryer screw marks, and they gave us Coca Cola even though Jane explained to them that we weren’t with our mum so didn’t have any money on us (not that she would have had any for us anyway). Do you remember?


From the way they regarded each other across the room, it was clear to me that the women were a couple. And I pictured them in bed that morning, the one at the counter with her arms wrapped around the one with the flowers. I imagined their room: books by the bedside, probably even more flowers in vases - they looked like nice people, people with good taste and money for things like that. They met at university, both on the same literature course, both reading the same books, both into the same jazz music. In the future that I knew was theirs, they spend their Saturdays cooking experimental recipes from books that their acquaintances bring back from far-off travels. They marry a few years after that day, and spend one weekend each month totally alone together at home - seeing no friends, talking to no one but each other. They would find that rejuvenating.

But back in the other present, at the Blue Café, the woman at the counter had sat down at the table and she had a stiffness to her when next to the woman with the flowers and it was suddenly clear that they were not a couple at all. In fact, from the way that she sat, her shoulders hunched and her handbag arranged in her lap, and her nervous glances around the room – to others and then back to her bag - it was obvious that she was old. Much older than her companion. The one with the flowers had her head bowed. She looked tense, reticent even, and it was obvious in this moment that rather than lovers, they were a mother and daughter, likely estranged. They had not seen each other in years and were meeting up to clear the air. The one with the flowers was cowed by the shame of not seeing her mother enough, not calling and not checking in, and that’s why she’d bought the flowers, to apologise, though she still felt that she’d not done enough. This was worrying her – she was concerned for the future and the thought that one day her mother would die and her shame would only intensify and she’d wish that she’d taken time to notice her mothers’ humanity, and ask her questions about her life, her hopes. She’d wish that she hadn’t cringed when her mother danced, or when her make-up smudged, wish she’d told her she looked beautiful, hadn’t found her expressions of effort so pitiful. She’d wish especially that she hadn’t rolled her eyes when her mother talked about how the people in the crowds by the palace hugged each other the day Princess Diana died, and how if everyone could be more loving the world would be a better place for people like us.

So, now in the future, simultaneously as the women are getting married, laughing together, one is mourning the other, picking out a coffin, reading a short eulogy as a crematorium technician nods encouragingly. Elsewhere, but in parallel time, they are colleagues dancing, old school friends reuniting. They are everyone you’ve ever known.

How many other people on our street saw those two women that day? And how many futures were conjured by those impressions: whole possible lives, spreading like tentacles into the great abyss that is time?

Jane sits down at my side, on my bed, in our room, and she follows my gaze through the window to the Blue Café and says she could be sure she recognises that woman, that one in the café with them flowers. She asks the boys to come look – boys, come look at that lady with them flowers, we know her, right? Don’t we actually know her? And together they try to remember where they know her from, but I know for sure that she is not in my memory, that I know her present and future, but only the lightest shades of her past. And I know that today, if someone was looking down at the Blue Café and saw you and me sitting here as we are now, in our best black clothes, me with the flowers, you at the counter with mum’s eulogy printed large – size 20 Arial – in your pocket, they wouldn’t recognise us either, wouldn’t even know that we are sisters, because no one from our street still lives here now. No one we know has lived here in years. And you look up at our old window, as our coffee arrives, and you say that of course you remember, that you remember it all so well: the watching, the lives we invented for people, the stories, the characters, the theories, some of which were undoubtedly true.

- Lou Stoppard


The Artist

Mary Stephenson

Mary Stephenson (b. 1989, London, lives and works in London) establishes an elusive and cinematic domain that fosters the unfurling of the unconscious. Delving into the liminal space situated between corporeal and internal states, the artist employs her discernible and highly saturated aesthetic universes to traverse the continuum from the familiar to the uncanny.

In Stephenson’s artistic realm, the inanimate becomes as crucial as the animate, with objects assuming a central role in the intricate tapestry of her narratives. Through her discerning lens, the paintings metamorphose into sorting rooms of excess thoughts, deftly layering narratives and conflicting emotions that illuminate the tumultuous nature of one’s projected self.

Stephenson’s oeuvre serves as a metaphorical magnifying glass, inviting viewers to scrutinise their own constructed identities. In this contemplative journey, her work acts as a mirror reflecting the manifold facets of human existence, offering a profound examination of the intricacies of self- perception and the societal pressures that shape our desires. When discussing her work, the artist likens her canvases to that of “pregnant spaces”. Through her art, Stephenson beckons us to confront the manifold layers of our projected selves and invites a thoughtful exploration of the narratives we construct to fit into the complex tapestry of human existence.

Mary Stephenson graduated from The Royal Academy, London in 2023. Her work has been acquired by The Loewe Art Collection, Madrid and the Government Art Collection, London. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Soft Serve,’ at Linseed Project in Shanghai (2022) and ‘Suddener Than We Fancy’ at Incubator in London (2022). Recent group exhibitions include; ‘Absent Presence’ (two person show with Rachel Whiteread) at Jeremy Scholar in London (2023); ‘On The Edge of Fashion’ at Rose Easton Gallery in London (2023); ‘Interior’ at Michael Werner Gallery in London (2022), ‘Civil Twilight’ at Giny On Frederick in London (2022).