I am wary of writing this story as if afraid it might echo a moment of devastating hubris in Emmanuel Carrere’s A Russian Novel. Here he includes and explores the consequences of a short story he wrote for Le Monde, a story that had one specific reader: his girlfriend of the time. He wrote the story in the second person with the idea that she would be reading it on a train out of Paris. As it so happened she didn’t get on the train, and didn’t read the story that was so directly aimed at her: she was instead elsewhere, having an affair with another man. While the story was meant to be an erotic tale of a writer’s desire for a woman, it turned into a nightmare of self-exposure.
But I’ll go ahead and write it anyway as I wonder if my doppelganger will read this, even if I am perhaps playing a much safer game than Carrere by semi-addressing a man I’ve never met. He was, I’d heard, minding his own business reading a Camus book in the Meadows on a passably warm Spring day here in Edinburgh. A couple of female friends of mine had been drinking during the afternoon and it was around six in the evening. They started to feel quite drunk and serenely mischievous and, not too far away, saw someone they decided looked a little like me: or rather someone who, like me, would be inclined to sit in the Meadows on his own reading a book. Of course from that distance they didn’t know he was reading Camus, and didn’t at all know really whether he looked liked me or anybody else. The closer they got to him the more the similarity seemed absurd, but nevertheless they went up and joined him. They said they thought he might have been a friend of theirs, someone who no less pretentiously would sit in the Meadows reading alone indicating that he was a man of leisure but hardly someone who liked to waste his time. He looked at them as if they might be about to waste his, and in his vaguely disdainful look Julie said that he must be a fake version of me, that everyone had a double, and he was trying to be someone else. He replied that he knew very well who he happened to be, and it sounded like the fake was the person they had just mentioned. After all, he was sitting there in the Meadows being pestered by two young women; where was this original? You can search for him on the internet, Isabelle proposed, and sure enough that is what he did as he took out his phone. He then said that just because this man had a website that didn’t mean this writer was a friend of theirs: they could have mentioned any writer they liked. Okay, Julie said, what we will get him to do is write a story about this very encounter we are having, and in a few months’ time you will find it online. Then you will be convinced that we know him, and know why we are calling you the fake version. At the very moment you will find yourself in the short story you will know that he is the friend we are claiming he happens to be: we will prove our authenticity, and you will be a character in a story: a fictional creation.
He looked at them as if they were more than a little drunk, and perhaps even a little mad, yet couldn’t help but feel that he was getting incorporated into this ruse that had no point or purpose. He even wondered if the writer had been short of story ideas and sent them off to interrogate an innocent so that he would have an idea for his next tale. How do I know he was thinking these things; well because I am the narrator. While I was tempted to remain outside Richard’s perspective (there, I have even given him a name), if he were ever to read this story I think it would be all the more infuriating if he were to read it with the awareness that not only was I writing a story about him, but also assuming that I had access to this poor man’s thoughts too.
Anyway, later that evening he returned home to the flat that he shared with his fiancee, and didn’t tell her at all about what had happened that day. Now this wasn’t because it was so unmemorable it wasn’t worth a mention; more that the mention it was worth couldn’t easily be explained or explored with a woman with whom he had always had a practical relationship. They had been together for five years and talked of marriage occasionally and of children once or twice. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted children, but he did like the idea of getting married, or rather being engaged. The engagement ring he wore gave his encounters with other women a lightness they might not have had otherwise. He wouldn’t deny he sometimes flirted, but he would never cheat on Ruth, aware that he predicated much of his identity on the notion of having a girlfriend, and a serious one at that. He had always been like this, even at school. He saw someone from fifteen to eighteen in Perth, and they were the first people in his year to have ‘gone steady’. They broke up when they went off to different universities, and there he met someone whom he described as his ‘girlfriend’. That too finished when he left Aberdeen, and then, after being alone for a year or two, he met Ruth, and now she was his fiancee. Each relationship gained in seriousness – going steady, girlfriend and engagement – and he did sometimes wonder whether Ruth was not quite the final figure in this steadily rising sense of commitment. Was Ruth only ever to be his fiancee, but never his wife: the apparent sense of commitment in getting engaged hid the possibility that it would be another that he would eventually marry?
I know Julie and Isabelle noticed the ring because they told me about it, and some might wonder whether they had thought initially this man may have been an attractive proposition. They were both in their mid-twenties, were doing post-graduate studies in subjects that engaged them. Isabelle was working on a fine arts PhD on certain techniques used in paintings after the renaissance and how they possessed an equivalent in contemporary media, and Julie was doing a doctorate differentiating ethnification, gentrification and development, a subject that was, she supposed, inter-disciplinary: sociological, architectural, environmental, and ethnographic. They didn’t really have boyfriends, and we might say their position on love happened to be quite different from our central character’s. They would usually define themselves as single, and preferred what they called encounters over relationships. An encounter would rarely be a one night stand; it could last weeks, sometimes months. But they wouldn’t refer to the other person as a boyfriend or partner, and would seem to get in and out of these affairs without apparently getting hurt, or seeming to hurt the other person. I found this strange, but that was because of my own complex entanglements; they believed there was no point in taking these encounters seriously until they wanted to have children. Then, yes, perhaps they would need a man around who could help create a secure environment for the kids, but why do it before that? Creating security without its necessity would be like decorating a house but not living in it.
I think they would sometimes say such things to me as a provocation, but they would live it nevertheless as a reality. I am tempted of course in this work of fiction to give them regular boyfriends and long term relationships, but I don’t want to stray too far from the facts, and one that I should offer is how I first met them. I was giving a reading about eighteen months ago in a second-hand Edinburgh book shop and, as they later told me, the offer of free wine was rather more tempting than the idea of listening to someone they had never heard of, and in they came. After the reading they came up and said they liked the work, or at least preferred it to the wine. Both were bitter, Julie insisted, but at least they didn’t have to taste my story, even if, Isabelle added, art was all about taste. Were they chatting me up or putting me down? I am not sure if they would clearly differentiate between the two and, as we went off for a couple of further drinks in a nearby pub, by closing time we were all pleasantly inebriated and bantering back and forth while I noticed they were getting quite affectionate with each other. Are you a couple, I asked, and they laughed. Julie said that with a drink in them, and no men around they fancied, they would sometimes get a bit tactile with each other. This seemed less a confession than a warning: just because they were having drinks with me didn’t mean they were available for anything else.
I wasn’t likely to make a pass at either of them – they were beautiful women in very different ways, and later I’ll describe them from our central character’s point of view – but they lacked or perhaps refused to suggest, a mystery, sensitivity, or hurt, that would have attracted me. They showed me no pain, so I couldn’t have shown any love. Yet I would meet up with them every month or so, sometimes just Julie, sometimes Isabelle would come along. Sometimes I would meet just Isabelle. With the three of us the tone was always light, and I would play up my old world romantic leanings while they would exaggerate their modern love of the chance encounter. They would tell me of lovers they would have, long weekends away in various European cities, and funny things that had happened to them. When I would meet them alone, however, the conversations tended to be serious, enquiring. Isabelle would discuss how perspective owed much more to painting than theatre when it came to understanding cinema; Julie would talk about the areas in Paris and Berlin that had been ethnically regenerated, creating atmospheres, where planning put up the buildings but couldn’t generate a spirit of life to accompany them. We were sitting in the Quartermile near the Meadows as she discussed these things, and we both agreed that only during the summer months, when the sun was out, did the cafe possess a decent ambience. The rest of the time it was empty of people except for the few you could see through the glass fronts on the floors above the cafe. The front wall was a window, and I would sometimes venture along mid-meadow walk, or by the Meadows, and see people as if I were watching television with the sound turned down. There were signs of human life, but no sound of it. I was describing this to Julie that afternoon and she said it was the opposite of a small southern French village she had been in the previous year. She would often hear noise and bustle from inside the houses with tiny windows that she could barely peer through, as she walked up and down its narrow and steep streets, and it made her think that what places need are acoustic signs of life more than anything else. All these flats with large window fronts created the opposite effect. You can see but you can’t hear.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the conversations with Julie or Isabelle on their own more than when the three of us met up, but talking to them individually I would feel much closer to my sensibility. When we were all together I suppose we were playing roles, exaggerating our freedoms (in their case) or our predictability (in mine). When they introduced themselves to my doppelganger they expected him to play the same role that I would play for them, but he seemed too humourless to go along with it.
What they didn’t know was that our central character was not in a happy state that afternoon. One reason why he was reading Camus was because he had read this collection of essays when he had been at university, but did so then to pass an exam and now wanted to reread it more as a self-help book, as a way of helping him make a few decisions. Over the previous few weeks he thought perhaps it was time to leave Ruth. When he would return back to their flat and she was already home, he didn’t look forward to her presence, he wished for a little more solitude – a bit more time in her absence. He would have liked to arrive home from work (he was employed full time at the university library) and spend an hour listening to music, drinking a glass of wine and perhaps reading a book. But usually when he got back, Ruth was preparing dinner, listening to whatever was on the radio, and when he came through the door would usually greet him with a hug and a few excited words about her day. He had once asked her about this; how could her day have been that interesting when his had seemed so dull – she worked at the university too: in admissions. She had said something that would always move him when he thought about it, and move him a lot more when he would think of leaving her. It was the excitement of seeing him more than the excitement of her day, she insisted. She liked telling him about things. It touched him as he supposed he would be touched by the children he couldn’t imagine them having, by having their child coming back from school and listing all the things they had done that day, given purpose and meaning by the proud expression he could only half imagine would be on his face. That was the problem, he noticed. When he thought of Ruth he would also think about the relationship’s limit; how he would have to leave eventually, no matter if they were engaged.
That early evening when Isabelle and Julie went up to him and started chatting, he was perhaps initially a little irritated because he had gone into the park rather than going home so he could have some space. He wanted time to himself, the weather was in the early twenties, and the sun was still high in the sky. He had found a tree he could lean against comfortably, with the sun in his face and the mild breeze a pleasant occasional interruption. He texted Ruth to say that he was reading in the Meadows, and did so with a mild sense of what he might have called temporal infidelity. He knew he should have contacted her as he was leaving work, but then she would have been leaving work also, and might have suggested that they spend such a beautiful evening in the park together. Instead he left it for half an hour, and said he would be home for dinner. She replied that if he had texted her sooner she would have joined him, but now she was back home preparing food. It would be ready for when he got back. It was the use of ‘for’ that made him feel like a scoundrel. If she had said it would be ready when he got back it would have been there whether he liked it or not. Instead it was as though it would be ready for him: that he remained the priority in her life and he didn’t feel she was the priority in his.
But what happened to be? Well, that was one reason why he was reading Camus when Isabelle and Julie interrupted him. He had just read the passage from the second notebook: “Keep a balance between an active concern for the body, and an attentive awareness of being alive. Give up all feeling that the world owes you a living and devote yourself to achieving two kinds of freedom: freedom from money, and freedom from your vanities and cowardice. Have rules and stick to them.” He needed to be alone so that he could decide what he wanted to do with his life. Ruth’s presence in it made him feel he was living for two with constraint rather than for pleasure. When he was eighteen he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go to art school or to study English. They were the two subjects in which he had excelled, but his parents persuaded him that while both were creative, English seemed the more practical. He would still paint when he could, but he gave up on a certain ambition and it manifested itself, he believed, in doing only watercolours and sketches. Where at school he had increasingly been interested in large canvases and oils, he thought one way of keeping an interest in art alive, without committing to it, was to work on a much smaller scale and with lighter materials. He didn’t need a studio, and in the flat he had a small easel in the box room, reliant on light from a small, slanted window from the roof.
Sitting there reading Camus he thought he might leave the job and travel for a year. He would survive he hoped by doing watercolours for tourists wherever he happened to be, and try to find a style and purpose working in miniature in the notebooks he would take with him. Over the last few months he had talked to Ruth about travelling, but he had phrased it in a manner that suggested they could go together, and he suspected he did so because he didn’t want the responsibility of abandoning Ruth; he would have preferred that it was her unwillingness to join him that would lead to the break. Again, it was a moment where he felt an unusual feeling of infidelity, as one evening he had tried to persuade her that they should go travelling for a year while at the same time dissuading her from joining him. When she said that the important thing was that they were together; it wasn’t important where, he felt both moved and irritated, frustrated and loathsome. As he sat that early evening daydreaming about the trip, he knew he couldn’t do it with Ruth, and would have to find a way of telling her that he wanted to go alone; that he wanted once again to be single.
It was into this moment of solitude, and thinking about its possibility in France, in Morocco, in Mexico and in Argentina, that Julie and Isabelle intruded. Had he met them in three months’ time, on the Canal St Martin in Paris, or the town square in Oaxaca, then he would have no doubt welcomed their company. They were both very pretty in quite distinct ways. Julie had thick, black hair in a bob that she seemed indifferent to; Isabelle long, blonde hair that she couldn’t leave alone. When they arrived it was up, five minutes later it was down, a few minutes after that she put it up again but in a different style than before, and then let it down again and twirled with its ends. Julie’s seductiveness he supposed rested much more on her gaze, and her line of enquiry. Where Isabelle would often look as if to hold a gaze and then look away before returning it in a gesture of flirtation, Julie would look as if interrogating an aspect of the other person that they were hiding from themselves. This might have seemed uncommonly perceptive on Richard’s part (he had only just met her), and some might credit this insight to me, since I have known Julie much longer. But no, this is what he noticed, and no doubt because he well knew that he was in the process of hiding from himself at the same time he was determined to find himself. What did he mean by this? Perhaps that he wanted to take off to other parts of the world to search out parts of himself that had remained unexplored, but knew to do so he might have to admit to an aspect of himself; that he would have to acknowledge a part of him that was not very likeable. He wouldn’t only have walked out on a girlfriend, but a fiancee: he had promised a future that he would be reneging on. As he would later think about this, he knew also that he could have explored those thoughts with Julie, that she would have understood an aspect of this hope towards the future that would have contained an element of denial towards himself. It was as though her look saw through him, and so in the process he needed to look at himself.
It would have been around a week after this meeting in the Meadows that he told Ruth that he wanted to travel alone, that he didn’t know if he would want to get married, and thought it was best if they cancelled their engagement. It wouldn’t be fair to her that he travel for a year while she waited for him. Perhaps she should use the time to try and find someone else. She was sitting on the couch while he was sitting on the chair opposite. As the early evening light came in through the window it shrouded him in semi-silhouette while her face was semi-squinting in the sun’s rays. He talked for maybe twenty minutes, explaining why he was leaving: justifying himself and apologising to her. He told her how wonderful she was and how much of a loss he knew their break-up would be, but felt he would resent her if he stayed; well aware that she would be very entitled to resent him knowing that he was leaving. He played with his tenses as if trying to soften the abruptness. In one sentence he had already made up his mind; in the next he would talk of them in the present tense. As he talked of leaving he felt he wanted to stay; as he talked of staying he wanted to leave. She did not cry that evening, nor did she protest: she went into the kitchen, finished preparing the dinner and brought it through. As he often would he put on some music and they ate in silence. Afterwards he went through and washed the dishes, and he heard Ruth going upstairs. She came down ten minutes later after he had finished the dishes with a sleeping bag and a pillow. She thought it would be best if he slept on the couch, but said it with no sense of anger. The following day he took the sleeping bag to work with him, and asked a good friend who lived alone if it would be okay for a week or two to sleep on his couch. Of course the friend said, and that lunchtime Richard went online and booked a flight to Paris. He had around six thousand pounds in savings, a TEFL qualification, and a few friends around the world whose company he would seek out and hospitality he would no doubt exploit: sleeping on his friend’s couch over the next couple of weeks would get him used to living more roughly but freely.
That evening Ruth had a class between six thirty and eight thirty: Richard went into the flat, filled a large rucksack and a small one, wrote a note saying that he had booked to go travelling in three weeks’ time, and left five hundred pounds in cash to cover bills and rent over the next few weeks. The flat had one bedroom and the upstairs box room with the skylight in it. She could rent it out easily enough he supposed and more than cover what she would be losing from him. The flat had been bought in her name, and he had contributed to the mortgage. Now someone else could help pa the bills.. He didn’t think cynically about such things, but let us propose he was practising the pragmatics of denial: he wanted to give to himself the impression that when everything was tidied up and sorted out, there would be no emotional entrails left dangling.
So Richard went off travelling and we will leave him to enjoy his travels alone: he left looking for peace and quiet and perhaps it would be unfair to follow him to France, to Morocco, to Mexico, to Argentina when he obviously wants solitude. Ruth, however, is now alone, and so it seems fairer if we follow her life after the break up for a little while: she would be happy to have some company, and perhaps can feel somehow the presence of a narrator looking over her. Indeed isn’t that the role God often plays in peoples’ lives: the master narrator who knows rather more than the person themselves? When someone at night prays that they will pass their exams, that their father will get better, that the weather will be great for the picnic, aren’t they assuming that God is able, like a novelist or story teller, to shape the future according to their whims and desires? Ruth wasn’t one for praying. But she did find herself occasionally wishing for Richard’s return, even if she more often couldn’t help but curse his absence and tell the few friends she did have how what he had done was awful.
She didn’t see him again after he had moved out, and didn’t know exactly when he had left the country, but though she took a few days off work during that first month, and for the first three took sleeping pills to help her restless mind find peace, she still managed to think practically. She put an advert online and received numerous requests for the room, and interviewed around a dozen people. Some of them said they were happy with the boxroom, but in such a way that Ruth wondered if it might be better if she rented out her bedroom instead. With one post-graduate student whom she instantly liked she proposed a deal. The rent would be a hundred pounds a month more, but she could have the bedroom, while the box-room and sitting room would be Ruth’s. They could share the kitchen which was big enough to be a comfortable social space. The girl agreed, the room was rented, and Ruth was already financially better off than she would have been had Richard stayed. She had to feel her life was improving in Richard’s absence, and this was the first example of it.
Ruth’s night-class had been a practical one: a computer course that gave her skills she thought she might soon need in her job. But before the next term she looked through the brochure and thought she would do more creatively inclined courses instead. Why had she never done so before? Richard she believed was the one given to reading difficult books and attending international films. She would see some of those films because she enjoyed being with him, but she was also surprised to find that she enjoyed a number of them, and realised she would have enjoyed them still more if she and Richard had talked about them in greater detail afterwards. She saw there was a film class in the Autumn term where a film was shown and the students would discuss it afterwards. She signed up for it, and did not know of course that the tutor happened also to be the narrator of a story that she happened to be in.
All through that summer Ruth couldn’t easily get Richard out of her mind, and he somehow sat restlessly in her body: it was muscle memory as a certain type of melancholy. Sometimes she would wake up from a dream and find him absent beside her, and for much of the day her body ached longingly. When friends would ask if she would take him back, she laughed and said not in a million years, but worried to herself that it it would take a good few to get him out of her system – out of her nervous system.
The course oddly helped, and she looked forward to it more than to anything else in her week. There were about sixteen students initially, but after the first couple of weeks there were around twelve, and the class stayed at a dozen for the remaining period. The films were usually unknown to her, and she wasn’t sure if she would have watched them on her own, but something in the class atmosphere and the tutor’s capacity to see the films from unusual angles, while at the same time contextualising them within the history and theory of film, made her feel as if she were being educated gently. She had always been a little scared of the arts, frightened that answers didn’t seem to be right or wrong, and that it was as though there were people who ‘knew’ about art and everybody else who didn’t. But what the tutor tried to convey was that it wasn’t really about the art (about who made the film, who starred in it, and what critics and theorists said about it); what mattered most of all was what the viewer thought it was about. On the first week the tutor said that of course he would try to convey information, give a context for the film, but what counted more was what they thought and felt about it. The only thing he was strict on was the use of superlatives. It wasn’t enough to say the film was great, terrible, exciting or boring; better to say that they liked the way an actor spoke or moved, to discuss the use of colour, how the story was more complicated than it needed to be at a certain moment.
She started to feel she knew what others were thinking and feeling, and understood that films could allow you to speak about yourself without talking about yourself. Once, after they watched a film about a deteriorating relationship, she said a few things that made her feel more expressive than the various attempts she had offered when talking about her own break-up with friends. There was this intermediate space between her feelings and the film’s.
She found herself watching other films during the week, and started reading the books that Richard had left, including a couple by the very writer Isabelle and Julie had seen him reading in the park. They had always been Richard’s books, and she had always been a little resentful and fearful of this world, even insecure, as though they were rivals if not for his affection then certainly his curiosity. Over the course of those weeks, over the weeks of the course, she wasn’t sure whether she felt angry with Richard for not trying to incorporate her more into this world, or irritated with herself for feeling that she couldn’t have fitted into it.
After the class the tutor would suggest going for drinks, but Ruth never went; instead she would go home and think about what people had said in the class, dining on her own and continuing the discussion in her mind – and even sometimes rewatching the film all over again at the flat, seeing in it things she hadn’t seen watching it a couple of hours earlier. In doing this she noticed how close or how far away she happened to be from other students. She wasn’t attracted to anyone in the class, but found the class itself attractive, drawn to a rare intimacy that could incorporate a dozen others. She had always thought intimacy could only come from very close friendships and partners, and could only come through talking about private things. Yet there she was discussing intimate things with strangers, courtesy of art works that clothed lightly the personal. She tried to remember how Richard would talk about a film after they watched it, and recalled that he would do so sometimes with frustration, feeling that she hadn’t attended at all to the film as what he would call an aesthetic experience. But couldn’t it also be an emotional one, she would say, a personal one? But didn’t that just mean there was no difference between a soap opera and a Shakespearian tragedy: aren’t King Lear and Coronation Street both about family problems? She didn’t have any idea how to answer this question, and suspected that Richard wasn’t looking for an answer but wished merely to close down the debate. But it was a question she would have liked to ask the tutor, yet found it was perhaps being answered in the very nature of the class. When someone asked why a film about a couple who would spend almost the entire film in bed together was better than a disaster film on an ecological theme, the tutor said it was never a question of how big or small the subject matter happened to be: what counted was what it revealed about our existence in the world. This was of course a question of aesthetics, of form, but it could never be reduced to that. One of the advantages he said of smaller subjects is that there were so many options available in its exploration. Sometimes big subjects, with their large budgets, logistical problems, and audience expectations, cannot easily ask new questions. It is the nature of the asking that matters. Aesthetics comes out of this.
She wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, but knew enough to believe it was an adequate enough counter to Richard’s claims, and that there was no snobbery or elitism in his answer. Yet there was also something frustrated in Richard’s responses that was not quite the same as irritation. She believed now that he didn’t want to exclude her from his interest in literature, yet didn’t quite know how to explain it. He could talk about it certainly, and he would sometimes have friends round talking about books in a manner that excluded her, but numerous people can talk about an art form without managing to convey to someone who does not understand its appeal its appeal for them. Richard was one such figure, a young man who knew the subject, but couldn’t at all justify it to another who was unresponsive. Yet he never said to Ruth that it was something one got or one didn’t. He had at least tried. She felt tenderness for him when she thought about this: her admiration was tempered as she realised how inarticulate in a certain way this apparently articulate man had been, but she still loved him, as though an aspect of his mediocrity had imposed itself on her anger.
At around this point in the story, I received a text from Julie asking if I wanted to meet up, and asking how I happened to be getting on with the tale she wanted a co-script credit for. I said it seemed to be going okay, but I would be happy to take a break. I wanted to ask her more questions about the character I was calling Richard. As usual with Julie, we would instigate contact with a text, and then follow it up in more detail with a call. She phoned me arranging a time and place, saying Isabelle would join us a little later on. We met in the mid-afternoon outside at a cafe near the Meadows, and as I looked up as she walked towards the table I was sitting at, and where I was reading a book by Camus, I thought how different she must have seemed from Ruth, in Richard’s eyes. She was wearing tight black jeans ripped at the knees, plimsols, and a vest that cheerfully showed off a modest cleavage. She knew she was a desirable young woman; my image of Ruth suggested that she had never felt that way. If she were to walk down a street there wouldn’t be be men looking at her: if they were it would be because her skirt was embarrassingly short and showing off legs that were too thick anyway. Whatever insecurities Julie possessed and would occasionally admit to, they weren’t integrated into her personality as a certain type of shyness. Even if she were to say are my breasts too small, is my bottom a bit fat, there would be nothing in her body language that would suggest that she would believe it. As she walked towards me I noticed a man in his mid-to-late twenties sitting on a bench looking at her she passed, and someone at a nearby table, a little older, doing the same.
I provocatively said after I went in and ordered her an espresso that I thought Richard might have left Ruth because of her. I assume these are the characters in your story, she said, understandably refusing to take responsibility for these actions I had credited to her. Yet I did wonder how she might have impacted on this man she had met and I had created. I often think one reason I write is to test out my instincts, to follow a feeling and see where it might lead. My feeling was that the person Isabelle and Julie described might have been someone dissatisfied in his life rather than simply no longer in love with his fiancee. If I thought Julie and Isabelle were women he needn’t get too close to, it partly lay in my refusal to get too close to them too. I suppose like Richard I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but dissatisfaction can be a problem too easily diagnosed and too promptly resolved. How many have an affair of the heart to calm the chaos in their head, and add to the turbulence? This is not the place to discuss why I would be resistant to Julie and Isabelle’s charms, but let us say that Richard might easily have been flattered by their attention, that they would have known the writer he was reading, and that the partial flesh Julie and Isabelle would have been happy to expose on a warm late May early evening would have appealed to him. They might have made going back to Ruth (who had, he always thought, the annoying habit of pulling her work skirt down if she thought it exposed a hint of knee) a not very exciting prospect.
I told Julie about the story I had written thus far, and asked her if she thought this was a reasonable growth spurt to the anecdote they had provided me with. Did she think it likely that the man in the Meadows would have left to travel not long afterwards, did she picture his girlfriend at all, and if so did my creation match her imagination? Did she think he might have been attracted to her, or to Isabelle?
She supposed that none of this really mattered: what would count lay in the ending, in whether I could give it form, a shape that made it complete. All the self-reflexive touches might make it very clever, but could militate against it working as a story. We talked for about an hour of other things, and then Isabelle joined us. Julie had nipped to the bathroom moments before so I had the opportunity to see Isabelle coming down mid-Meadow walk just as Julie had done a little earlier. She was wearing a light summer dress and she had been taking advantage of the good weather: her fair hair had been made fairer by the sun, and her skin was honey-toned except for the face: which was flushed by the sun. As she came and sat down she said I seemed to be watching her with more attention than usual. I replied that I was imagining how Richard would see her. She paused for a moment as if wondering if I was referring to one of her casual assignations, and then I said the man from the Meadows, the character in my story, was called Richard, and I wanted to try and imagine how he would feel seeing two attractive women coming towards him. What did he think, she asked. That you were probably trouble, I said, laughing. Julie, just coming back from the bathroom, wondered if Isabelle was more trouble than her, and I said they were probably equally problematic. Heck, you’ve broken up his relationship, and now he is travelling around the world. Isabelle looked at me as if to say how did I know, and I of course replied that how could I not: wasn’t I the all-knowing narrator?
Perhaps the most important new detail they offered about Richard was that he seemed very confident, but not around women. They suspected he was dismissive of their presence because he was awkward about his own intentions. They suggested he wouldn’t be much of a womaniser on his travels, and would probably spend a lot of time worrying about his ex-girlfriend. I supposed my instinct coincided with their observations, and perhaps why instead of focusing on Richard’s new found freedoms I instead concentrated on Ruth’s life. Yet perhaps I found myself doing so to avoid writing about a situation a couple of years back, where I created much pain and felt more than a little of my own.
But that is for another story, a braver one than this, I suppose, and maybe Richard, in an act of revenge might find a way to write it, to write between the cracks in this one and reveal me as I am here revealing him. I am assuming he has plenty time alone since he started travelling, and I see him staying in a hostel in Paris round the corner from Fauburg du Temple, taking in the sun on a rooftop terrace in Marrakesh, and getting pounded by waves others have the good sense to surf and not swim through in Puerto Escondido. But I see Ruth more vividly still, someone who is surprised at herself and the ease with which she has taken to solitude. She had always thought she needed a man in her life, and in this wish lay an anxiety that Richard would have sensed but which he had never articulated. It was as though he did love Ruth, but not as she was; more as he wished her to be. Such thoughts could not only not be articulated; he could hardly formulate them in his own mind – he wished for a Ruth who didn’t need him. A Ruth who wished to be alone but wanted to be with him even more. A Ruth who would find in films, and then in books, her self, and not the tension he would sometimes see in her face when he talked about them. It may have been Richard who left, but it was Ruth who needed space: space to become herself not in in the eyes of another but in their absence. Yet what was paradoxical was that this figure she was becoming, that would have been all the more attractive to Richard, was also someone who in the process was getting further away from him while staying in the one place. There he was, travelling around the world, getting further and further away, and missing her much more, while unaware that when he would return she wouldn’t only be unwilling to start seeing him again, but that he would be rejected by this more assured, thoughtful and enquiring woman: a woman much more to his liking than the one he had left.
I suspect that writing this I won’t only be irritating Richard if he reads it, but also many women who see an all-knowing narrator giving a female character a bit of emancipation from a decidedly male perspective. However, as I write about Richard I find that I am increasingly writing about myself, and if I am creating a Ruth out of my imagination, I cannot easily separate her from a woman in my own life. Perhaps if Richard is to read this story he will see in my narrator someone who hasn’t imposed himself upon his existence, but transposed himself into it. Initially I wanted to write an ironic tale that could impress Isabelle and Julie, a low key commission that would amuse them and might amuse myself in the process of writing it. Instead I skirt with the autobiographical in the form of the hypothetical, as I create a Ruth in someone else’s image, and a Richard a little in my own.
I imagine their story ending when he comes back from Mexico, tanned and trim, having gained in colour and lost the few pounds of sluggish fat around his waist, eschewing all those rich sandwiches, crisps and chocolate bars he would eat out of bored half-hunger. Ruth would look a little different too. A year has passed and she doesn’t pull her skirt down over her knee; she dresses more like Isabelle and Julie. She is several years older than them, and does not wear the clothes as they do. While they are still brandishing their youth, she is a woman reborn: someone who isn’t going with the fashion, but choosing her attire. If someone were to witness Richard and Ruth in the cafe they are sitting in, the very cafe where I had met Julie and Isabelle while writing this story, they might assume they are witnessing a couple who love each other very much. They might not be wrong, but Ruth tells Richard that she does not want to try again. It isn’t that she has found someone else; for the first time she feels, in the year he has been away, that she has discovered herself. She wants to continue that adventure, she says, and it will be her who will soon be travelling, and Richard staying in Edinburgh. When I started this story I had a feeling it would end with Ruth sitting on a park bench in the city inconsolable, and instead as it concludes I see Richard walking around the Meadows each night after dinner wishing for news from Ruth as she will be visiting some of the places he has already been to. If one early evening Isabelle and Julie see him sitting reading a book, I hope they will notice that the man they met a year earlier has changed a little, and they will be sympathetic to that change. But then they will have read this story, and perhaps be wondering whether they should offer me a little more sympathy too.
Unlike Carrere I have not written about my own life here, and partly because I do not want to expose certain people who have asked to remain anonymous. Like Carrere I think it is important to write as honestly as one can about oneself, but a self is always interconnected to other selves, and in A Russian Novel he admits he exposed others too, and regrets this a little. It is often difficult to know when we have exposed and when we have revealed. I think when people read a story or a novel that they have heard has been based partly on them, they rarely get angry before the event; they want to know what the writer has done with their life, their personality, their identity. Exposure without revelation is a terrible thing, but how can we reveal without exposure? I suppose this is one reason why we have fiction: to tell us truths about ourselves and others without that exposure, yet allowing for this revelation. I sometimes feel the real addressee for this story isn’t Richard at all. But who then instead?