"I think you made him up," Alan says, halfway through the consolatory pint that Stephen, amazingly, has bought him. "There's no such person as Jack Derry-whatsit."
"Jacques Derrida certainly does exist." Stephen takes a sip of his Campari and soda. It's his favourite drink, he says, because it's purple and has the word camp in it. "He's a renowned philosopher."
"Tell me what his philosophy is, then. If he's real."
The triumphant arch of Stephen's eyebrow, which is a perfect mirror image of his weapon-edged smile, makes Alan's heart start to sink. It reaches Mariana Trench depths when Stephen says, "Well, we probably need to begin with Plato and the classical Athenian notion of the logos."
After that there's something about writing, and something about dead fathers and Egyptian gods, and something about weddings and giving ships names, and something about French spelling. What there definitely isn't is a lovely, blessed director tapping his watch and making "wrap it up" signals.
"Forget I asked," Alan says when Stephen stops for breath.
"Oh, sorry, was I not clear?"
"You missed your calling, Stephen. Never mind comedy, you should've been a lecturer."
For an actor, Stephen's face gives away a lot. Alan wouldn't have thought it was that easy to hurt his feelings. The man really does believe these things are interesting, Alan decides as he's getting the next round in. He's like a little kid who thinks hopscotch or ducks-and-drakes is the best game in the world and can't understand why all his mates would rather play football.
When Alan gets back to their table, Stephen's still looking sulky. Considering that the real theme of every episode is "let's take the piss out of Alan," it's a bit much. But then, Alan doesn't actually give a toss about French philosophers or the speed of light. And he likes giving those obviously wrong answers that set off the klaxons and make Stephen scold him pityingly. Something he knows--and Stephen obviously doesn't--is that what people really love is a good loser.
He lets Stephen feel hard done by for a little longer, then says, "So this Dairymaid bloke believes that nothing means anything?"
Like a watered plant, Stephen springs back from his discouraged droop. "Well, no, not quite. He critiques traditional ways of understanding the world. Our tendency to think in opposites, for example, like good and evil or truth and falsehood. And he offers forms of analysis that show the limits of that kind of thinking and even break down the distinctions to an extent."
"He doesn't really have a philosophy, then, does he? He's just got doubt."
"Precisely." A raised eyebrow again, and a smile, but this time it's entirely different. All the sarcasm's leached away, and what's left is fond and knowing. Stephen, Alan realises, has never thought him stupid. "Honest doubt is better than false certainty, don't you think?"
"Does that mean I get points the next time I've got no bloody idea what the answer is?"
"One can take a principle too far, I'm afraid."
"Is that a certainty?"
"A very certain one."
Anyone looking at them, Alan knows, would take them for a pair of village idiots, the way they're grinning at each other. The grins fade down little by little, silliness burning away. Something goes quiet and expectant between them. They're still looking at each other.
"Right," Alan says. "These opposites, the ones that are supposed to be so bad. There must be hundreds of them. Like gay and straight. I'll bet that's one."
Stephen leans forward, the way he does on the show whenever he really is interested. "Oh, yes. Indeed."
"So instead of being opposites, they should sort of meet in the middle?"
"My dear boy, one might think you were flirting with me."
"One might, yeah."
"Are you?" Stephen asks, just casually enough that they could still pass this off as a joke. As just another round of the private game they've been playing, ever so publicly, for months. It's up to Alan whether to end it, whether to trade doubt for certainty.
To hell with French philosophers, anyway. Sometimes it's the doubt that's a lie. Alan touches Stephen's hand and says, "Absolutely."