For many years he thought he was practising an approach to life that was ethical, considerate and purposeful. However, at the age of forty, he believed he had lived it with fear, cowardice and selfishness. When he was twenty-three he left university and decided he did not want a career, and never wanted to earn more money than he would require to live on. He subsequently took a part-time job teaching English in Granada, then Buenos Aires, then Paris. He then returned home to Edinburgh for a few years, before travelling again, teaching in Barcelona, Sarajevo and finally Athens, again returning to Edinburgh at forty. In each city, he had at least one love affair (as well as several in Edinburgh), and sometimes left the place not long after the affair was over or when his teaching contract concluded. He liked the idea of seeing himself as someone who had gone out with girls from different countries; it gave him a sense of cosmopolitanism that made up for his linguistic incompetence: he spoke no more than a few words of French, a few words of Spanish. He promised these girls nothing, proclaiming that he never wanted children and never wanted a lifelong commitment. Even if the women ended the affairs as often as he did, he always believed it was for the best and that another woman would come along and occupy his bed.
In a couple of instances, in contact again years later, a couple of them said they had never really got over him. They met him at an impressionable age and were overly impressed. They had other relationships, of course, even threatened to get engaged, but no, they still had feelings for him. Yet both had offered their remarks without wistfulness or a wish to get back together; more that he had marked them and they wished he hadn’t done so at all. There was a curious combination of admiration and irritation in their voices as they talked, and no wish for physical contact though their confessions came out of drunken evenings visiting Edinburgh. They had both insisted that he had taught them to be alone: to never accept less. Alice had been twenty-two when she met him, and he was twenty-six. She had long, light brown hair that would brighten when lengthily exposed to the sun, and a clear complexion that would freckle in the summer. She had come from Montpellier to study English for a year in the city, and for the first three months studied at the incompetent language school in which he was teaching. It was a three bedroom ground floor flat that the owners had turned into a language school when the children had left home. The two rooms at the front were for the classes, and they employed anyone without at all checking the tutor’s qualifications or experience. He taught there two mornings a week, and Alice was one of the students. When they started seeing each other he thought it was probably unethical to sleep with a pupil, but it wasn’t a very ethical place in the first instance. It would seem to make more sense that she attended a better school rather than that they avoided sleeping with each other. For the next nine months they would meet up several times a week and he didn’t only help with her English but introduced her to the books of various British and American writers as well. She tried to help him learn French, but often in a way that did little to improve his grasp of the language, but provided numerous moments of amusement for her as he mangled the pronunciation. Before she returned to France she said they should try and continue seeing each other: that he could find work in the South. He liked the notion of teaching somewhere hot more than he desired the continuation of the relationship, and he said that what they shared had been lovely, but it was of the moment. That September, a couple of months after she had gone back, he did take a job in a hot country, but it was for a sunny Winter in Argentina. When he saw Alice years later in Edinburgh, in fact only a couple of years ago, she supposed he was right to end it but that didn’t mean she had easily recovered from the encounter, or perhaps even worse hadn’t wanted to do so. She asked if he had seen Karl and Nina, a couple they had known when they were seeing each other.
The exchange with Mariel whom he met a couple of years after the affair with Alice, was similar. They were both teaching in Seville (Mariel taught German) and had an affair that lasted six months and, when he had seen her again a year ago in Edinburgh, she had expressed how important their time together had been. She had never found another man she had loved as much as him. Yet it wasn’t a happy love, she admitted. It left her lost, lonely and excavated. When she thought about the time they were together she would flinch, and ever since she had hoped to find a man who could fill that void he had lazily created in her. There was no sense that she wanted him back; just that she had never quite moved forward. These exchanges at the time didn’t leave him feeling guilty or dismayed, and we dwell on them here only because after the affair with Elena in Greece he started to dwell upon them himself.
For after returning from Athens he didn’t know whether he wanted women to occupy his bed anymore: the last person with whom he had an affair had too completely occupied his mind. Was he so much more in love with Elena than with any of his previous lovers? Perhaps, but she was the first person he found himself thinking he could spend the rest of his life with and the thought had terrified him. Before he never had to call into question the values he was living by: his attitude to money, to languages, to commitment, were all contained by an ethos that suggested everything was provisional and temporary. Meeting Elena changed this.
He met her after she contacted him for private English lessons. He had been in Greece for four months and had a return flight booked for mid-September, more than three months away. He was teaching at a school near Likavitos; she was finishing her PhD on a modern Greek poet and needed his help with the dissertation which she was writing in English. She was in her early thirties but had never lived abroad, almost all her friends were Greek, and she would frequently slip into her language when they were together or with others, as if almost forgetting he was there. For the first six weeks, he was her teacher and also her friend: she would sometimes invite him to join her and others for a drink after the lesson. This was unusual for him: when he became attracted to someone, the affair started quickly. He would meet up with them once or twice, show his interest and a sexual liaison would develop or sometimes they would drop in a boyfriend and he would back away.
But Elena didn’t mention any emotional entanglement during this period, and indeed most of their conversations were based on ideas rather than feelings. He asked her about films and books, not about past relationships and present affairs. He felt she must be single, and it might have been the first time that he hadn’t pursued someone because he assumed they didn’t have a boyfriend. It was as though he could not see how he might have penetrated her sense of self-possession. She never gave the impression of loneliness, but gave off a strong sense of solitude. He knew this was something he shared with her, but he wondered whether it was for antithetical reasons: that he had always feared commitment; she had always enjoyed her own company. After all, when he looked back on the last twenty-five years of his life, most of them were spent with someone. In more than twenty years, he had been alone for a total of about three. He found himself wondering how long Elena had been solitary.
He never really did teach her English; they would talk about a book she had read, a film he had seen, an exhibition one or the other had attended. Sometimes he would be too engaged in her thoughts to correct the way she used the language, and often after the lesson he said that he couldn’t possibly charge her; he had corrected hardly any mistakes. She smiled and said she had hoped during the lesson that she hadn’t made any. He said she possessed the rare quality of making errors without failing to make sense: he didn’t feel the need to correct her because the thoughts themselves were very coherent.
During this period before they started sleeping with each other, he found he couldn’t help complimenting her. Sometimes it would be a remark about her dress; sometimes about the way she moved her hand to swat away a wasp, sometimes over an observation she had made. He had never felt this need before, and so wondered what feeling was elicited from his body that demanded he so immediately speak his mind. He had always been suspicious of compliments and prided himself on having regularly managed to find lovers without offering flattery to get them into his bed. He wouldn’t even wish to say that he had bedded them: it was too active a verb, too indicative of getting what he wanted rather than sharing something they both desired. He knew of friends who would say that a compliment well placed removes several of the stages towards sleeping with someone. Yet he had always assumed that by engaging with their world they would then be interested in sharing his company. He never wanted to conquer anyone or anybody, but he wondered if he was so complimentary to Elena partly because he hadn’t yet slept with her.
He finally kissed her one evening after they had been out with a couple of friends of hers who also spoke English. As the others left, she apologised that they had kept slipping back into Greek, and he asked if she wanted to continue speaking a little English somewhere else. They found a cafe in the same district and he wondered if they had any tea. The waiter looked at him as though he had misheard him, and Elena asked again in Greek. The waiter took it almost as an insult as if to say there happened to be a time and a place for tea and it wasn’t at midnight in the centre of Athens. He would see what he could do he said and, as he walked away, Elena smiled, more or less saying certain requests can carry the weight of a taboo broken if deemed eccentric enough in the circumstances. He then wondered if a second request might appear as odd as the first. He moved towards her and kissed her lightly on the lips. She pulled away and said she hadn’t expected that. And initially he couldn’t work out whether her look was one of dismay or pleasure, and only later would accept that it was somewhere in between.
After she pulled away she nevertheless talked more personally about herself than she had done previously. He found out that at the age of seventeen she had what she supposed people would call a nervous breakdown, rooted, her therapist suspected, in the disappearance of her father when she was eight. One early evening she remembered him kissing her mother on the cheek and saying he was going off to the shop at the corner to pick up some cigarettes and that was the last time she ever saw him. Over the years numerous hypotheses were forwarded by her aunts and her uncles, by her grandfather and grandmother. He had been kidnapped, someone said, but they bungled the kidnapping and couldn’t claim the ransom money. Someone else in the family would dispute the claim, saying that why would they kidnap a man who owned three cafes in a small city? Why not kidnap an industrialist, a banker, a footballer? Another member would say that he must have been very depressed, that he had taken his own life or created for himself a new one. An uncle wondered whether he might already have had that new life in place: that he married a mistress after realising she was pregnant. There were numerous other ideas put forward, and family members would adopt the stance they did based on the perception they had of him before he left. For one uncle, her father was an arrogant man who always thought he was better than the others in the family. Her father had gone to art college after he left school, and for several years travelled through Europe surviving as a street painter. He returned believing that he didn’t have much talent, and decided he might have more of a gift for business. He came back to his hometown by the coast about forty miles from Athens, opened a cafe bar that worked out very well, and over the next five years opened another two, married Elena’s mother, and had Elena, their only child. Another aunt saw things differently. That he could have been a major figure in the art world, could have made it big in the city, but instead came back home to be with and create a family.
As Elena related this information, she did so as if she were talking about someone else’s life and not her own father, and while he had never noticed this in anybody else, others had witnessed this aloofness to their own biography in him. They had been surprised that he could talk about his father’s death (when he was seven), and of the constantly, verbally abusive step-father who came into his mother, his sister and his own life a couple of years later, leaving five years after that, having terrorised them all. When people had expressed surprise, even alarm, that he found it so easy to talk about this past without emotion, he hadn’t thought very much about it but, seeing Elena doing precisely that, he found it uncanny, unsure whether the uncanniness resided in the notion that it was odd that anyone was capable of relating their life in this way, or whether it seemed strange that he had met someone who could do likewise. Yet there was a difference; Elena was talking about a man less from her own memories than the various prejudices that conjured him into being. Perhaps she had a reason to feel removed; what was his excuse? As he felt that as she talked about these things at a distance from her feelings, how much more removed must he be? He had a moment of self-insight he didn’t much like, and his mind squirmed as he momentarily found he hadn’t quite liked the way she had talked about herself, and suddenly liked himself still less.
Yet both of them possessed he believed a capacity for exploring their emotions even if they couldn’t claim to be expressing them, and over the next few weeks they admitted to each other that it was possible they had never before quite been as open with anyone else as they now were with each other. Nevertheless, there always seemed a gap between what they were saying and what they were feeling; not because they were lying to each other, but the sincerity of their relationship incorporated within it an acceptance of emotional limitation. They were damaged people, they supposed, but honest enough to acknowledge it. (During all this time they never once talked about their past relationships and affairs.)
Elena said as much one evening after they had been together around ten days. They had been to see an open air film in Exarchia, and afterwards were strolling around the district looking for a cafe that would allow them privacy and quiet. Often when they would go for a drink or a coffee in this fashionably anarchistic area, they would be interrupted by Elena’s friends and acquaintances. They were she insisted much more fashionable and trendy than she was: they knew what music you should listen to, how high to wear ones’ jeans, how short your skirt should be. A couple had shaved their hair down one side; most had tattoos. She spoke of them with disdain or rather tried to rescue from her criticisms the content of their friendship. One of her fears was that in the last year or two they had become less friends than peer pressures: people who wished to shape her into the type of person they had become and that she was determined to avoid.
At that moment they had found a cafe that seemed private enough while still allowing them to sit outside, and as they sat down she kissed him. Most of the kisses over the previous ten days he had instigated, and she had never before actively initiated affection in public. He asked her why now. She shrugged and said who knows; perhaps because he was her escape from peer pressure. She noticed that in all the time she had known him she hadn’t had a single panic attack. Ever since the day when they met up for that first private lesson she reckoned that she had been if not calm then at least without that incapacitating feeling of panic. She kissed him as she thought he might be responsible for its absence. It was as though, she said, all the demands of family and of friends seemed irrelevant next to his calm and warm gaze. She kissed him again, and again. Then added, a feeling meeting a realisation, that she must be in love.
He wouldn’t have denied he was in love as well, and probably had fallen for Elena before even the very first of those kisses almost a fortnight earlier, but he couldn’t say this was for the same reason, if reason has anything to do with love at all. He supposed he thought it did. If Elena admitted that part of loving him consisted of believing that she was entitled to a different sense of self than that demanded by family and friends, here he was in a foreign country with no family and no close friends at all. It was perhaps that Elena suddenly entered into a solitude he had never quite before acknowledged; for Elena he seemed to represent an escape from a certain type of crowd. She would sometimes say to him that when a third of a nation’s population lives in and around the same city, it is as though there is no escape. He was an escape into a calmer, quieter universe.
That evening they sat drinking a decaf iced coffee and watched various people, whom she happily didn’t know, pass in front of them. It was late July and many were soon to go off to some Greek island for their holidays: few comfortably off Athenians spent the entire summer in the city. She said that perhaps the best way they could spend their summer would be to avoid the islands, the holiday resorts and spend it in Athens and Thessaloniki. For the next fortnight they stayed in the capital, and though the temperature would often be 40 degrees, the absence of people in many parts of the city made it seem somehow a few degrees cooler than it had been. Of course, some areas were hopelessly crowded, and a couple of times they wondered through Plaka. The streets were dense with tourists, but Elena would suddenly find a side street they could disappear down and where they would kiss hungrily as if she didn’t care who saw her, knowing of course at this time of year nobody whom she knew would be likely to do so.
They then took a train up to Thessaloniki for a few days, strolling along its sea front, walking up to the back of the city, sitting in cafes in the town centre, mainly at one square shrouded by trees. The city wasn’t as empty as Athens but felt quieter, as though the town could never quite be populated beyond its capacity to think. He had noticed this before, but for some reason it took him a while to realise he was thinking of his own home city. When it occurred to him he told her, and said she should come and visit him there. As he said this, at a cafe just beyond the city’s old walls, he expected her to look pleased that he was projecting them a little into the future, but instead, she looked sad. She told him any thought beyond the present made her feel melancholy: it somehow made the present into the past. He wanted to argue that this surely wasn’t always the case: didn’t couples constantly throw themselves into future projects, hopes and dreams? He didn’t do so however as if accepting that her tone indicated there could be no future between them, that when he returned to Edinburgh they wouldn’t see each other again. At the cafe he looked behind him and saw an empty table full of unfinished food: as though the diners had all left in a hurry. There was a hardly touched portion of moussaka, a couple of skewered meat dishes, and a spanikopita that looked as if no more than a couple of mouthfuls had been taken out of it. The lunch that he and Elena had eaten was superb, and he couldn’t believe the food had been left through disdain. He asked Elena to ask what had happened. The waitress said that the family had received a call and had to leave. He thought about mobile phones and how it didn’t only make the phone mobile, but those in possession of it too. One’s whole life can change in a second. Twenty years earlier the family would have had their lunch, strolled around the district, arrived home in the early evening and received the bad news. They would have had their lovely day and then their terrible shock; now it was as though all events bled into each other.
He tried to explain this to Elena, but as he did so he wondered whether this capacity for one event to intrude on another had always been there, and he had just witnessed it between Elena and him in his remark about her visiting Edinburgh. A lunch of grilled sardines, homemade potato salad and some rocket had been tempered by an invite that led to the suggestion of an affair reaching its conclusion. As they walked back down the steep and winding streets, the multi-coloured facades of the houses on the way up no longer filled him with a sense of well-being. He felt even a quiet dread, a dread quiet partly because he couldn’t share his thoughts with Elena, and this is why he perhaps knew he was in love and that his subconscious had quickly, madly believed that he would be with her for years. There he was half-making plans with her in years to come, and she had already decided that it would all end when he got on that plane in a couple of weeks.
That night they gave themselves to each other’s bodies as though they were strangers: it was the first time the sex was impersonal, even prostitutional, with each one of them trying to find their own pleasure to the detriment of their partner. Once, several evenings earlier, Elena had said ‘don’t wait for me’ as she could feel his body tense with the effort to avoid orgasming too soon. This night it was as though he didn’t care at all about her pleasure and only for his own, and she was doing likewise. They both came quickly as if in a race they weren’t quite sure who won. Afterwards, he lay awake next to her and thought about the lovers in the past, and whether they might have felt (as he did lying there) like an item with a sell by date. How often had he said to someone that the affair would finish when he left the country, how often had he heard quiet protestations, met with the softest of caresses, that surely it could continue somehow, somewhere? And here he was at almost forty hearing what he had uttered to them offered to him for the first time. He felt not only his own pain but that of three or four lovers before him who would have hurt as he was hurting, and he felt a guilt that didn’t at all assuage his own wound. It made him feel doubly pathetic: brusque in the past and weak in the present, he could have only hidden in the future, but there all he saw was the absence of Elena in it.
The next morning he couldn’t hide his hurt and almost ruined the afternoon as he went with Elena shopping for some new clothes. She would have to start applying for jobs she supposed, and so went looking for a couple of skirt suits. She said perhaps she would apply for a job in Edinburgh, but offered it as a joke, and he replied it needn’t be so absurd. She could finish her PhD in the city and start applying for jobs in the UK. Yet when he said this he wasn’t only annoyed with himself for trying to persuade her after she made her position clear the previous evening, but also anxious as he noticed that he had never before even attempted to think of his life as accommodating any more than himself. Even if Elena would have been willing to move to Edinburgh for him; what would he have done to facilitate this? The flat he lived in and rented out during his numerous teaching posts abroad was so compact it could only comfortably house one and had never before been expected to find space for another. How would she survive financially: wouldn’t he have to help her get by on his meagre income? Would he have to work extra hours when he had always insisted teaching part-time? He recalled about a dozen years earlier in Edinburgh teaching for three months one summer forty hours a week, and by the end of it, he was physically exhausted and had lost almost all interest in teaching the subject. Could he do it again for Elena? Would she be able to find work in Britain? Would she cope with the language? It was all very well speaking English with him, where he had years of experience making every vowel and consonant clear, but would others make such an effort? These and numerous other questions crossed his mind and made his mind cross – angry that his musings were without much point as Elena expressed no wish even to visit the UK. He was irritated that he had never given much thought to the women he had known who had wished to be with him, and who would have been troubled by many of the questions that were troubling him now. He started feeling empathy for others out of feeling sorry for himself, and was perhaps doing no more than hyperbolising his pain by projecting it onto those who had felt love for him in the past.
A couple of days later, after they had returned to Athens, Elena awoke before him, came into the bedroom and insisted she wouldn’t be free that day: a cousin texted her saying she’d got back from a few weeks on the Greek island of Serifos; Elena would go and see her out in the northern suburbs, where Elena’s parents also lived. Elena mentioned the island as if with regret that she hadn’t gone with Angela, and made it clear that she didn’t want him to join her. With only a week left before he returned to Scotland, she was prioritising her cousin over him and for much of that week she was elsewhere. As he would wander around Athens as the city began to fill up again with returning locals, it mocked his own antithetical feelings of loneliness. Places that he had been to a week earlier – a cafe he had sat in in Exarchia, a walk through the narrow streets of Plaka, a bench he sat on in the Botanics – carried an ache that he couldn’t countenance. He thought of all the places in the world he had been to, and they started carrying an ache as well. He remembered sitting in a corner cafe in La Boca in Buenos Aires. The previous day he had told the Argentinean woman he was seeing that after three months together it was over. He was booking a flight back to the UK. He had sat in the cafe and felt mainly relief, having left Sofia the previous night sobbing with a quiet pain he suspected would take months to go away, and he was relieved that he wouldn’t still be around to accommodate the consequences of it. He recalled sitting looking out at the sea and across at a small Greek island after a brief holiday in Kas in the south of Turkey. He had flown there for a week with a fellow, American language teacher, Lila. She was going back to continue teaching in Istanbul, leaving from Antalya, while he was flying out of Antalya to Scotland. They had argued earlier that day after he admitted he couldn’t see the point continuing the relationship once he was back in Edinburgh, She was infuriated and left a few hours later for Antalya, saying she would stay the night there, even though her plane wouldn’t be until later the next evening.
Did he care that she had probably cried on the bus, in the hotel room, perhaps on the plane? He cared much more for his own sense of freedom than any pain he caused. He hadn’t been cynical about it, but he had been pragmatic. His feelings were always more important than other people’s, and how could it be otherwise? He had his own mind, his own nervous system. It wasn’t that he couldn’t care less; more that he believed everyone cared less for others: it was the nature of our nature. The condition that we were born with, had to live with and would die with.
Yet there he was soon returning to Scotland yet again after a break-up and here he was wondering where one nervous system begins and another ends. He needed Elena’s touch as he had needed painkillers for an awful toothache or penicillin for tonsillitis. He had never before quite felt that another person was so important to his nervous system as Elena happened to be. It was this he supposed that made him so retrospectively empathic towards Sofia and to Lila, as if he could finally now understand how they might have felt by virtue of feeling it himself. It wasn’t that he had been insensitive; no he had thought carefully of how to tell them, always returned emails promptly and if they and others whom he had hurt wanted to keep in contact he would always oblige. He had never left anyone for someone else, and any break-up had always been about returning to himself and often returning to Scotland. Yet those returnings now seemed to him to have been so easy, and now he knew it would be so very hard.
The evening before his flight, he had a drink with some fellow language teachers and sent a message to Elena saying he would be back at the flat for nine. When he arrived he could smell the food in the oven, the sitting room light was distributed by numerous candles, and just one lamp, and as she came through from the galley kitchen she kissed him both warmly and hungrily. As they ate a moussaka with salad and a bottle of wine, he knew this would be a night he would remember with a soft ache for months to come, and yet tried to live as if aware that in a year or two he would remember it as a great memory if only he could enjoy it at that moment. Yet he couldn’t help but ask why it had to be their last supper – couldn’t she visit him in Scotland; did she really have such a strong attachment that she couldn’t try living elsewhere? He thought he was in the process of ruining the evening, that Elena had wanted to enjoy the meal, pleasurably make love and cuddle, and then acccept he would be leaving the next day. Instead, she announced that she had thought a lot about visiting Scotland, had felt close enough to him in these last few weeks to feel that she trusted him more than anyone for a very long time. Yet still she was wary and thought, somehow, that it was best if they acknowledged that it was a beautiful moment in their lives, but one that should not be extended beyond the holiday romance it happened more or less to be.
Up until this moment, neither of them had talked about past relationships and affairs, as we have said, so he was surprised when Elena looked at him firmly and announced she had something to tell him. He expected that it had been an ex-boyfriend who had returned from Serifos and Elena had lied to him, but there was no suggestion in all their time together that Elena hadn’t been honest. Yet his instinct was half right: there had been an ex-boyfriend. When she was twenty-one she met a man several years older than her who was teaching some courses at the university in which she was studying. He was finishing his PhD and giving tutorials, and she attended some classes he taught on Democracy and the Media. He was younger, more attractive and more enthusiastic than the other teachers, and not surprisingly she was interested in seeing him outside the tutorials too. Yet none of the other girls in the class were drawn to him: he was too involved in his subject to pay them any attention a couple of her friends reckoned, and this made Elena more intrigued. It was as though if the others had shown an interest it would have been the predictable instance of the figure of authority abusing his power and using his charm. Instead, she was taken in by his apparent indifference to anything but his subject and she wasn’t sure if that hadn’t been what she wanted to extract from him most of all. She had wished to feel passionate about her studies and had thus far been mainly indifferent.
She saw him one day in the university cafeteria and as she passed he looked up and smiled, asking how she was enjoying the classes. As she stood for a moment with her tray he insisted that she sit down unless she was with friends. She was, but Elena sat down nevertheless. She was enjoying the class very much she announced. He would explain things with such good examples that the terms made sense, were relevant to how everyone was living now. As they talked he never seemed to take a compliment but instead parried it away before using the remark to explore an idea. When she said he spoke with such clarity he quickly said that there are different forms of being clear. One is the journalistic clarity that gives the impression of making absolute sense, but when you begin to interrogate the words they are made up of cliches and assumptions strung together. They are easy to repeat but difficult to understand. Then you have an intellectual clarity that can be hard to grasp, but the more attention you give it the more sense it makes. Unfortunately, these ideas can be very hard to repeat, and hence usually the journalistic wins out and functions basically like propaganda.
As he sat there listening to Elena talk about her first great love affair he perhaps should have felt uneasy, but instead he believed this was an emotional intimacy to match that earlier discussion where she talked about her father’s disappearance. She said they were together for no more than nine months, but during that period he helped form her, she said. Even though Nikos wanted nothing conventional, nothing committed, she believed that every day was a learning experience and she could feel as they walked around Athens, holidayed up in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area, as they spent a week in Crete, so she was never bored. They would often read together in cafes, and he was always happy to be interrupted by a query she had about the book she was reading, and he would then ask her questions about it as the reading session became an informal tutorial. Yet their conversations were never one-sided, and he often admitted she had the ability to ask him questions about political issues that he would be incapable of asking himself, no matter the endless reading he had done.
After about nine months his contract at the university finished, and he managed to find work in Paris. What Elena found odd was that she didn’t feel the break-up was especially painful. They would keep in contact occasionally, but when he was next in Athens, around eight months later, it was Easter and she was with a new boyfriend holidaying on Serifos. When she returned he had already gone back to Paris. Yet over the years, she thought about him a lot, and she couldn’t deny many of the conversations she would have with others were somehow an extension of the discussions she would have with him. She also believed that if getting over someone means that you love another more than you loved the one that you were getting over, then she had never quite got over him. Yet, in all the time since they broke-up, they had met only on three occasions. The last time was a couple of years earlier, and they had talked for around three hours in a cafe at Monastiraki, sitting in the shade drinking iced coffee, talking briefly about their lives and mainly about politics and aesthetics. He still wasn’t married and had no children. But he was well known: Nikos Makriannakis. His hair was now grey, but it hadn’t diminished his attractiveness. His face, his gestures, his movements were still youthful. As they parted it was as though they had barely started the conversation at all, and they said they must meet up again before he returned to France. But though they texted each other in the few days he had left in the city, they failed to make an arrangement.
As she told him this, as she mentioned this was the last time that she had seen Nikos, she held his hand and said she wasn’t telling him so that he would feel inadequate next to this man from her past. There were boyfriends after him who knew nothing of this relationship, just as they knew nothing of her family history. That she was sharing this with him was a sign of love, she supposed, perhaps even attempting to eradicate the effect Nikos had on her. She would sometimes think that she and Nikos could talk about anything, but now she would wonder whether there had been so much to tell. Wasn’t she so young that she had more reason to express herself and less of a need to hide anything? Yet she had to admit that no other man had come into her life and managed to impact upon it as Nikos had, and there she was telling him this fact. It is as though he had given her such a sense of well-being, such a feeling of trust within herself, that she wasn’t sure she would ever need to accept this from anyone else again. She had no desire to have children, and many of her thoughts would consist of pursuing acts of solitude. She had silly ambitions: taking a moped around South America, for example, cycling through Europe, or walking from the south of Spain to the north of France. She said that she had gone on long walks before: she had walked right along the coast of Crete, all around the island. She had cycled through parts of the Balkans.
He asked her whether these were activities that Nikos also enjoyed, and he enquired as if asking her whether she had slept with another man while with him, whether an ex had been a better lover than he had been. He gulped as he asked, and she swallowed too as she said that yes, he liked doing all these things: perhaps why he had remained childless and unmarried.
That night they made love more subtly and quietly than before, looking into the other’s eyes where usually they had looked away or closed them: as if they could concede completely in touch what they had to deny in sight. That evening they were in communion, but afterwards, as Elena turned away from him to sleep, he knew she was gone, perhaps thinking of Nikos, but more probably happy in the space that Nikos had somehow taught her to occupy, and that excluded him.
The next morning he woke before her, finished packing, wrote a brief note, kissed her on the forehead as she stirred, and slipped out the front door. At the airport and on the plane he found the sorrow that had appeared the day when he wandered around Athens alone while Elena was in the northern suburbs, growing and spreading. In the first few days back in Edinburgh, where he moved in again to the flat that he had sublet during his months in Greece, he found himself incapable of finishing anything he started: he bought some shelving but the packages lay in the hallway. He bought vegetables to make up a soup, but after chopping the carrots and sweet potatoes into pieces, he then put them into a bag and left them in the fridge. He ended up usually making pasta, pesto and salad; for breakfast, he had a bowl of cereal and a piece of fruit. That must have been his diet for about two months.
Luckily he had work arranged from before he left for Greece, and started teaching a couple of days after he returned. He was often absent-minded while doing it, but count and uncount nouns, conjugating verbs and making sure the students got their tenses right required of him nothing new. All he had to demand of himself was that he got out of bed on time; not so very difficult considering that he kept waking up too early rather than too late. To try and tire himself out each night he would walk for a couple of hours, and since he was unable to read he sometimes went to the cinema. He had probably four or five friends in the city, but he hadn’t told any of them he was back, and it wasn’t until he had been in Edinburgh for more than a month when he met a friend and his wife coming out of the cinema, the friends Alice had asked about last time he saw her.
He had known Karl and Nina for ten years; indeed Nina and Alice had been friends for a while and after he had been seeing Alice for a couple of weeks she asked him if he had any single friends: now she was spending time with him she believed Nina was feeling left out. He said there was a young teacher at the school he was working in, around her friend’s age. He was German too, he said, and so they arranged a meeting with the four of them. Nina and Karl liked each other enough but didn’t seem any more in love than he and Alice, but they stayed together and there he was seeing them in the cinema foyer. Karl asked how long he had been back, where he was teaching and that Nina and he should have him round for dinner. After all, he said, as Nina patted her burgeoning belly, a celebration was in order.
A few months earlier, he would have smiled a little condescendingly and congratulated them, while feeling that their life had been a hopeless compromise and based on no more than an arranged meeting all those years earlier set up by Alice and him. He didn’t feel it that evening at the cinema, but this isn’t quite the same thing as saying he envied what they had. He didn’t want to put a child in a woman’s belly, had no interest he thought in nurturing a child in the world, and watching it grow. No, but neverthless a feeling of all that he was not appeared exemplified in this smiling couple who had built a story for themselves and were living it incrementally. They had moved in together after several months, bought a house after three or four years, got married a couple of years after that, and here they were soon to have their first child.
As he parted from them offering no more than vague plans (text me when you have time he said), he couldn’t quite explain his feelings as he walked home that night. He couldn’t say he wished he had stayed with Alice and thus shared the last ten years of his life with someone. Yet he couldn’t say his feelings of melancholy and regret concerned the loss of Elena either. He had contacted her not long after he returned, and received no reply at all. He had no idea if she was angry with him for slipping out quietly that morning, or relieved that he seemed to accept it was the best way for them to part. In the email he had apologised for his hushed disappearance, and said that he couldn’t think of another way of parting: it might have been too painful to have separated after breakfast, no easier if she had seen him to the underground, or the airport.
Yet what perhaps disturbed him more than anything during those few months after he returned from Greece was that he had neither moved towards spending his life with anyone, had developed a world for two and then three as Karl and Nina were doing, nor impregnated anyone with solitude either. It was an odd and ugly phrase, but he couldn’t quite remove from his mind how inadequate he felt next to Karl (whom he would never have previously envied), and Nikos, whom of course he had never met. But where Karl had created a life with Nina, Nikos had it seemed given to Elena, and perhaps others after her, a capacity for aloneness that gave them certain resources he had never contributed to providing. Perhaps, had he gone through life recklessly and produced a string of children that he rarely saw and whose upbringing he had avoided contributing to, then he would have felt like a terrible person but he couldn’t deny he had created fundamental meaning in the world: he had helped create other human beings. Perhaps if he had decided with one of these lovers that he had wanted to build a life with them he could have been living now in settled circumstances and having a meaningful existence. Maybe if he had given to each of these lovers a feeling that they were but a temporary figure in his life but the most important during this time, he might have helped give them the very basic security he believed he saw in Elena, and that she credited partly to her time with Nikos. Perhaps.
However, he felt instead that he had gone through life underestimating other people’s vulnerabilities, as if he had always been stronger, more capable of tolerating his own company than they could accept theirs. Yet he was rarely alone for any more than a month or two, and then at forty he had met someone who needed her solitude far more than he did, and he didn’t quite know what to do with his himself. He could not say he felt jealous of Nikos. There was no sense at all that Elena was still in love with her ex, but equally, there was a feeling that she could not quite fall for our narrator either partly because of some quality this man had possessed that she probably couldn’t find in anyone since, and certainly not in him.
As he would wander around Edinburgh’s streets, thinking of all the avenues he had more happily walked along over the last twenty years – streets in Buenos Aires, Granada, Sarajevo, Montpellier, Paris – he thought of how inadequate his love affairs had really been. While he knew he wouldn’t have been content in his mid-twenties settling with Alice, nor later with Mariel or any of his other lovers, he could at least have given them all that he had, been emotionally committed during the time he had been with them instead of viewing them as no more than experiences. It might have given to his personality a gravity of being – a weight of feeling – his light approach to love had robbed him of. By the time he met someone he could love, it was as though there was not enough substance in him for her to love him in return. He possessed a quality that helped her feel calm in his company, but did she instinctively know he had not enough solidity to justify her continuing a relationship? Again, perhaps.
He never did hear from Elena, but he would occasionally look her up on the internet, and see that she was working in Thessaloniki as a research assistant. On one of these occasions, around eighteen months after he had last seen her, he also thought to look up Nikos too. He remembered his full name, and there were numerous articles available, a mention of several books written, and a handful of pictures. In one of them, he was with a woman probably around Elena’s age. And he clicked on it and then went to visit the page itself. It was a photo from Nikos’s recent wedding. The bride looked not at all like Elena, and as he gazed at the image, and then at another photo as well, he noticed that she resembled Alice. He wondered at that moment how different things might have been if Nikos had met Alice and he had met Elena years earlier: would they have settled down with their physical ideal, presuming that is what this woman whom Nikos had married was? Or did it require for Nikos encounters with women and the world before finding a woman he wanted to devote his life to: in finding his ideal in the search?
He suspected that this was the difference between Nikos and himself: that Nikos had gone through life searching; where our narrator had gone through it accumulating. There Elena’s ex was, in his early forties with a wife the photos suggested he clearly loved, a career that appeared to give him meaning, status and a decent salary, and at least one ex-girlfriend whose capacity for solitude rested partly on the time she had spent together with him. Of course, if he had seen Elena in the photo he might have felt jealous and been able to give such a prosaic term to the feelings in his body at that time. But envy would have been more precise and so much more troublesome. In jealousy, he would have seen that he had lost Elena to another man, but it was as though he saw in Nikos a better someone: a man he had never met who nevertheless in his being suggested to him how inadequate his own being happened to be. He couldn’t help wondering, however, what Elena had made of her former boyfriend getting married. He suspected she might even have made it to the wedding and this made him ache still more.