I had always been seen as a political person and saw this in the eyes of others perhaps more than I could finally see it in myself. At eighteen, in my first year at university, a minor incident became a political purpose, as I saw in the face of those around me an admiration that I would keep expanding upon.
It was about a month into the term and I had been out drinking with around six others from the same kitchen in the halls of residence, in a city that needn’t be named. There were sixteen people to each kitchen, with rooms off and around it. Some people would quickly take items from the fridge and the cupboards, cook promptly and take the food to their room, Others would, like me, cook slowly and share what we would make, and chat for hours at the kitchen table afterwards. Were we monopolising the space or offering it up as a social environment? I hoped it was the latter; I would often suggest that the less gregarious join us, and usually offer food too.
That evening we got back from the pub after eleven and the warden came into the kitchen and asked us to make less noise. I asked if there had been any complaints, and he said he was complaining. I suggested that was a bit like ending someone else’s relationship deciding that the person in it wasn’t happy. If anybody came to complain of course we would be even quieter than we happened to be, or we would go to bed. But I knew the warden’s own flat was nowhere near the kitchen and he couldn’t possibly have been woken by the noise. He insisted that as the warden he could tell us when it was time for us to go to bed; I proposed this meant because of his authority he could send us all to bed at eight. Without supper, I added. He reckoned I was missing the point and undermining his authority. I replied that I was making a point and he was overstepping the mark. There he was, this man around forty, containing an anger within him I believed was the opposite of the political: it was the authoritarian. While I would always admire strong figures looking after the weak, this was an early encounter with a weak man who would always serve the needs of the strong. As he said that I should know my place, I insisted I did, and I was sitting in it. This was our kitchen and we had paid for the right to use it. Indeed it was our money that allowed him to live rent-free in his one-bedroom flat in the halls as a warden. As we argued, he raised his voice and I raised mine, and after a couple of minutes, we were perhaps almost shouting at each other.
It was then one of the quieter students peered through the glass door, tapped on it, and looked in. Hesitantly, apologetically, she said that she really needed to sleep: she was up at five the next morning for a mountaneering trip. No problem, I said, we would all go to our beds. The warden looked at us smugly as if to say he had made his point, but as he did so I looked at the others and said that he had lost the argument. That was the first time anybody had complained about the noise, and that was because he had been arguing over the level of it, and it was his appearance that had increased it threefold.
As he left, the others clapped quietly. It was the first of my many political victories, but now I would be equally inclined to say it was the first act of egomania.
Throughout university, I would have girlfriends, but they wouldn’t last very long, usually because they were annoyed at my preoccupation with politics and my indifference to their needs. I offer the latter almost as a quote: it was said more than once and wasn’t without justification. I would end the affair abruptly saying there are more important things than our own emotional wants. Think of the people scurrying through the streets buying bread in Bosnia while snipers take aim from the hills; think of the people in Rwanda, losing friends, family and limbs. I offered it in the rhetoric I used in the speeches I would give at the student union, and I don’t want to say I was wrong; that now I have learned how to treat people as individuals rather than blocs of political indifference that needs converting. No, I cannot pretend that my present stance is so much more enlightened, or my position then insensitive or naïve. We are always insensitive and naïve, I often think, just in new ways.
I say this recalling one particular relationship at university that went on for six months and where I was constantly cajoling her into being more politically active than her inclination demanded. I would show disapproval when she would prioritise a film or an exhibition over a rally, I would be exasperated when she would say that sometimes it is best not to follow the news; that we should leave time and space for ourselves, for walks in parks, and concerts. I would say we could often do both at the same time: there were always political concerts we could go to, and the rallies were frequently held in parks. She would look at me searching my face for irony but said she would see so often an indignant monomania.
Was Gabriela correct? Perhaps, and perhaps all the more because her parents were of Chilean origin. They had left in the mid-seventies, frightened less for their own lives than terrified by the toxicity of a country that couldn’t allow the people to speak easily with each other. It wasn’t only the social injustice, the murdering of citizens sympathetic to the prior communist regime. It was also the difficulty to speak openly to one’s neighbours: to believe in the idea of friendship when everyone was afraid that another person could potentially be an enemy.
Gabriella expressed this to me one evening a month or so before we broke up. Earlier that day we had gone to a rally on a cold winter’s morning. Gabriela had shivered in the glacial temperature and said she shouldn’t have come. She was never good with the cold, she would always say, and she felt she had a bug coming on. That evening as we sat next to the gas fire in the sitting room she said that the political should serve a purpose; that initself it isn’t one. It is like money she said: we don’t actually need money – it is worthless. It is just a means of negotiation; a way of getting important things. Politics is the same. Of course, she added, we need to fight for justice, but what is the operative word: the fight or the justice?
I could say I took no heed of what she said, but here I am twenty years later recalling it and putting it down in print, so while I couldn’t claim I transformed my behaviour, that isn’t the same thing as saying I ignored her remarks. There are certain truths that are very slow to absorb, she would sometimes say, and perhaps that is central to what real political change happens to be about. What she meant by that, she added, was how our nervous tissue meets the perceptual world. As Gabriela talked, her skin regained the colour that had turned it sallow earlier that day. Taking her in my arms I could feel in my body that we weren’t the same type of animal: that nothing in my gesture could match her warmth, and I had the horrifying feeling that some of us, perhaps certain types of animals, are not quite of and for this world. We are the intermediaries; those who have no place in it, in that oceanic possibility of feeling. We are money rather than what it can buy. In this ideal world we seek, there may be no need for politics, and we will be an evolutionary irrelevance.
Over the years I was involved in many protest movements but never affiliated myself to any party. I was a kind of political freelancer, going from one situation to the next. Of course all of them would be defined as left-wing, but as the Labour party throughout the late nineties and into the next decade became indistinguishable from the other mainstream organizations, I could not have joined it in good faith. I protested against the war in Iraq, the situation in Palestine, the introduction of student fees. I would often be invited onto platforms, and felt often closer to a journalist than a politician, or perhaps closer a lawyer. I liked nothing more than mastering and marshalling my material, building a strong argument and feeling that I had won the debate.
About ten years ago after various casual flings with people I would meet at rallies and events, I met Katya, a young human rights lawyer, with a Polish mother and an English dad. Her mum had left Poland during Solidarity, and shortly afterwards met her father: Katya was the prompt result. I could say Katya was the first person with whom I had fallen in love, and yet I would also have to acknowledge that vital to this feeling was a sense that Katya would make a perfect political mate too. There she was in her mid-twenties, newly qualified, and determined to fight for justice. When we first talked after a pro-Palestine rally, in a Camden pub, I asked what she meant by fighting justice: it could seem a trite phrase. I offered my remark provocatively, perhaps flirtatiously, and she replied with a furrowed seriousness. To her, justice is what makes our nervous system feel at peace; it is what makes us believe that we are not alone in sleeping well at night. We have helped others do so as well. She knew that if she had studied another aspect of law she would soon be sleeping in a much more luxurious bedroom but would the sleep itself be so good. Of course, there had been fellow students who saw the legal profession as a means to make money; wasn’t it sanctimonious to credit one area over all others: shouldn’t we all be able to sleep well at night they would say, not only the Human Rights lawyers? All she could say in return was that she knew what would help her sleep; she couldn’t judge what would help others rest well. Her attempt to defend her own position was still taken as an attack on her classmates, and she had to stop herself from wondering aloud whether their insistent need to attack her smugness contained within it a burgeoning bad faith which would soon enough lead to a few sleepless nights.
What was interesting was how she offered this anecdote. It was a searching attempt to understand other people’s feelings and motivations rather than an assured declaration of her own position. I knew I could never have offered my stance with such doubt and dignity. Perhaps this is why I am writing this now; to understand an aspect of my own egotism, certainly, but also to recognize how we often love what we are not.
I wouldn’t say over the next ten years we were inseparable: we were both far too busy in our own area for that – but there was a complicity I didn’t often see in other couples, and I can only call it the ethically complicit: the sense that we were both pursuing our paths separately yet together. If for example she was in her Sheffield office (where she would usually work a couple of days a week) and I was at a rally in London, I would be detailing what was happening on the mobile, and she would be sketching down some of the information on a piece of paper. Sometimes she would tell me of someone who had lost their case to stay in the country, and I would get together a group of others, slap a notice up on social media, call the news organizations, and wait outside the person’s house for the police to come. If the media didn’t turn up, we would film the event ourselves and put it on the internet.
During these ten years Katya never worked outside the law, never once gave me information that meant I had info to which I wasn’t entitled. She refused to do so, she always said, not because she was a great believer in the system; more that she had great faith in her clients and didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise their cause. I knew when she would say this she wasn’t accusing me but I might sometimes wonder whether I had furthered the rights of people I was ostensibly defending, or just registering my own political agenda. There are incidents now that I look back on if not with the enormous force of guilt, then with at least the occasionally shocking presence of shame. Guilt I reserve for Katya; that is the dull ache I live with. The shameful episodes that led to what happened embarrass me deeply.
I can think for example of a situation around four years ago when I was at a rally in Glasgow. I had decided to back Scottish independence, though I wasn’t Scottish and wasn’t a nationalist. As I stood there defending their cause, so I also added it was one I supported only because I could not see for years to come the possibility of a socialist United Kingdom. I believed in the union I told them but didn’t believe in the Little England that had become its representative. I continued that Britain deserved a return to the post-war consensus, to a cradle to the grave welfare state, and the protest vote that was a vote for Scottish independence, a vote that would no doubt come to nothing, but would be vital in its failure, was what Westminster need to hear. I ended the speech expecting great applause and instead received a few hand claps that could in other circumstances have been jeers.
Why? No doubt because I not only insisted that the demand for independence was of secondary importance but even offered it as such with the grammar of an aside. It was like a subsidiary clause, and the Scots noticed that as much as anything else. Later that evening over a pub supper one of the organizers asked me as politely as he could why I had come all the way up to Glasgow to say that the Scots’ case was pretty pointless and could function best as a protestation. If I had given the most honest of answers I would probably have said to him that I believed it was a cause that was useful to my own ends, to my own need to feel on top of the political game, and Scottish Independence seemed like a cause to get behind. At the time, in 2012, I had little hope for a radical Labour party, and going on a rally defending Ed Miliband seemed like being caught at a Phil Collins’ concert: somehow an embarrassment for all concerned. Yet I hadn’t at all understood the first principle behind Scottish independence, and I look back on that moment with the sort of shame I would feel if I were once again to meet the eye of some of the people in attendance.
Katya I don’t think would ever have felt shame about anything she did, and I can best explain this by saying it wasn’t so much that Katya had principles, though she did, but that she had first principles: she would look at the basis of a problem and act accordingly. She would never take on a case that she didn’t believe in, and this had little to do with whether she would win it or not. She would feel the immense disappointment of defeat not as a personal failure, but a feeling that she failed her client. Yet within this sense of failure, she would somehow be absent, just as she would be absent to the successes. If she won a case it was proof that the system wasn’t completely without scruples; if she lost it showed that it had to be improved. It wasn’t even as if she would offer self-abnegation when a case failed: she always knew she couldn’t have worked any harder to win it.
Yet she wasn’t someone for whom work meant everything. It was a claim I would sometimes make even though I suppose I worked less hard than she did, but for me it meant everything because I invested it with my ego; Katya would somehow only invest it with her time. She would not fret over a case when she wasn’t working on it, and when she was visiting friends, with me, or with her family, she would be engaged in the present moment. I remember once after a lengthy and exhausting case we went off for two weeks to a place a colleague of hers had lent us in the south of France. It was not far from Montpellier, in a village whose name I don’t recall. I remember instead the house, on the corner of a narrow steep street just behind the town square. I remember the facade, with cherry red shutters on the kitchen windows, and a sky blue door. The ivy had grown thick on the front of the house, and inside the space was compact but never cramped, and resembled a little our house in London, in Stoke Newington. The kitchen led into the sitting room, and a winding staircase to two small bedrooms and a bathroom. At the back of the house, in the shade and facing out onto the cemetery, we would sit on a couple of heavy yet slight metal chairs, at a small round metal table with a wide and red tile surface, and read.
Katya took no work with her at all, and not even her laptop; instead buying a couple of slim novels in French at a bookshop in Montpellier, and read through them with the aid of the English/French dictionary she took with her. I had brought with me a political biography and a book of political essays: I had agreed to review them for a left-wing magazine in London. While Katya was usually bemused and concentrated, constantly noting down unfamiliar words, I would swear under my breath and ask her if she could believe such and such said that. She would tell me I needed to relax; that I should go and buy some shopping and practice my French.
It was perhaps during this trip that I noticed a basic difference between Katya and me; one consistent with the observation I earlier made here about feeling I wasn’t quite of and for this world. Katya could relax because she knew there was a value in it greater than all the work she happened to be doing; that her work’s purpose was partly to allow people the sort of pleasure she was presently enjoying. If the world was absent of injustice, she looked like she would be very happy to devote her time to learning languages, making long, slow meals, bathing in a nearby lake, and drying herself leisurely afterwards. But I was not at peace during that fortnight, as I would moan about an article I had read in the Guardian weekly, admitting frustration as I realised I would miss a march in London against new immigration laws. Katya would reply that we can only be as useful to others as we are content in ourselves. Yet I couldn’t believe this, as I insisted that surely a feeling of injustice exists in our nervous system as an anguish, as a constant irritation, a malady.
That evening as we cooked up a ratatouille we would have with fresh tuna, she said that perhaps one of my problems was that I never had a cause for which I necessarily had to fight. She offered it as a quiet observation, an attempt to understand an aspect of my personality, and not as a personal attack. She said that perhaps one thing her father taught her was that if you see injustice at first hand, you needn’t become neurotic about unfairness. It isn’t an abstract idea but a concrete fact. You see it in front of your eyes and don’t feel it permeating your nervous system. She’d obviously given much thought to my observations earlier that day, and this was another of Katya’s wonderful qualities: she wouldn’t only never start an argument, she wouldn’t even engage in one. Yet this didn’t mean she wanted to avoid the issue either. Instead, she would say perhaps the other person had a point, and say she would need to think about it. She would then do whatever else she was doing, and hours later come to the point when the person (and that person was usually me) had calmed down and could discuss it with less urgency and greater clarity.
What she believed was that her father’s relationship with Solidarity made clear to her that there were causes for which we fight, well aware of course that there are numerous other injustices around us for which we are not fighting. Yet we can only hope that in fighting for our cause there are others fighting for theirs. Was there a sense, she wondered, that I didn’t quite know what to fight for, and got caught between various injustices that would tear up my nervous system? She said this kindly, affectionately, pouring a just-opened bottle of wine into the two glasses as I set the table. We clinked our glasses, saying cheers, and she kissed me, saying imagine if we had numerous other people in our mind as we made love, would we be able to function properly? The ratatouille was ready and the fish would only take a few minutes to cook. We continued kissing as we moved up the winding staircase, pushed opened the bedroom door and ate hungrily off each other’s bodies.
Afterwards, and during dinner, I said what she had observed earlier frightened me. Why was I so involved in various political causes; what did I wish to gain from marching, protesting, speaking, writing and lecturing? If someone asked me what coherent vision I had of the society I seemed to be fighting for, I couldn’t have given much of an answer, and yet I would feel the need to provide one. Katya never appeared to need to do that; as if her answer lay in the happiness she would find in moments like those during that holiday. She wanted less a different world than the one she would sometimes have, and she would like more of it, and others to have it too.
I wouldn’t have denied Katya had a point; I wouldn’t have denied that she put it well. Yet I couldn’t take her advice, and over the following three years we were together, I heeded it less and less. I became more assertive in my responses and more hectic in pursuing causes. I was by then quite well-known, writing for an established website and teaching regularly at a London university known for its radical political stance. I would often get invited to other parts of Europe, and also to Latin America and the US. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem as Katya would be working very hard too, but it reached the point where our schedules kept clashing, and when she would finish a case and have a couple of weeks to go on holiday, I would have agreed to give several lectures in another part of the world. On one occasion I was invited to give three talks in Buenos Aires: they were paying for the flight of course, and putting me up in a hotel in Recoleta, and paying well for the lectures, which would only take up three mornings of the whole week I would be there. I persuaded Katya to come, saying while it would be a working holiday for me, it could be a relaxing break for her – and still we would have lots of time together.
We arrived at the airport, a taxi awaiting us, and drove to the hotel. The first evening we slept, trying to avoid jet lag, and the next morning I got a call from the university asking if I could come in to discuss the three lectures, which would start the next day. I apologised to Katya and said I wouldn’t be too long, but when I arrived at the university they had announced that a few people in the politics department insist I join them for lunch. I tried phoning Katya, but her mobile was switched off or there was a problem with the signal. Later that afternoon I tried it again, and it went straight to the answering machine. I tried a few times until she finally answered at around nine that evening. I asked her if she was okay – a question about her safety rather than about her emotional state, and she answered saying of course she was okay – for the first time ever, perhaps, I noticed irritation in her voice. She said she would meet me at a restaurant in Palermo if I liked. It was where she happened to be at that moment, at the bookshop, El Ateneo Grand Splendid. We ate a restaurant nearby and throughout she was polite but aloof and asked me about the following day’s plans. I said I would be lecturing in the morning, would be invited to lunch with the fellow speakers, and then there was a tour in the afternoon that she could join us for her if she wished.
I offered it without much enthusiasm, and she declined with even less. I was aware that she knew a human rights’ lawyer, someone who had worked on a lot of cases for the disappeared, and she said she had seen her earlier that day and would see her again the next. I asked her a few a questions about her friend, and though it might have seemed I was only half-listening, I have thought a lot about her work since. She had discovered when she was nineteen that she was the daughter of someone who had disappeared, and her adoptive parents had taken her in when she was two not simply as an orphan, but as a child they were looking for since they couldn’t have any of their own. The military junta at the time would give these children to childlesss couples sympathetic to the regime as rewards: her friend was one such reward. She disowned her adoptive parents, insisted on a lump sum from them to keep quiet about their deed, and used the money to train as a lawyer, since taking on numerous cases exposing the adopters.
For the rest of the week Katya and I saw each other only in the evenings for dinner, and when we returned to our hotel we slept with our backs to each other. The night before we left I asked Katya if everything was alright. She said that it wasn’t but we could talk about it when we got back to London.
We never really did talk about it, and over the next year Katya was busy with a particularly complex case concerning illegal migrants exploited by an employer, and I was usually travelling from one conference to another, one crisis situation to the next. The website I had been writing for was now amongst the most successful voices on the left, and they could afford to send me around the world investigating stories.
During that year Katya and I had sex no more than half a dozen times and without much intimacy. We rarely ate together, with Katya often coming in around eleven at night, and going straight to bed. I suppose she returned earlier when I wasn’t in the city. We were strangers living in the same place but with the added awkwardness of people who knew each other well and pretended they didn’t. Increasingly we would leave notes for each other: will you pick up toilet roll and bleach; I’ll get milk and eggs. On a few occasions I would wake up and find Katya absent; when I went downstairs I would see her lying asleep on the couch, a duvet over her and a few files and her computer on the coffee table inches away.
It would have been a couple of weeks after that I happened to be in Paris for a conference on the state of emergency adopted in the capital after the November attacks a couple of months earlier. I suggested that the loss of civil liberties wasn’t alleviating the problem but exacerbating it: once again a western government had overreacted to a threat and undermined their own liberal credentials. Loss of life I insisted, of course, e catastrophic, but the loss of liberties far more so. One is a wound inflicted, the other is an act of social self-harm. I think my points were well-made and needed to be said but, when I look back on that weekend, I also have to acknowledge there was something in my demeanour and my tone which meant I hadn’t quite understood the pain in the room and the impact of lives so recently lost.
It was the evening of my speech that I was looking at the news online and saw that an important Mexican journalist had lost his life. For several years he had been exposing the drug cartels, and had recently suggested that he would run politically; he believed that journalism could report the news but actively fighting for political power might just change the society. Many were surprised he had lived as long as he had, that some even wondered whether his continued existence was evidence that he was actually benefiting in some way from the gang warfare: that they let him live so he could report the gangs’ atrocities. These might seem atrocious acts to the general public, but from the gangs’ viewpoint this journalist could be seen as the messenger they didn’t need to shoot because the news he was reporting left them with blood on their hands yet with glory for their group. But he would be coruscating in his criticism of the gangs, mocking their lack of education, their ad hoc hierarchies and their inability to organise properly. He would compare them to the Italian and the Russian Mafia and say that while of course he abhorred all forms of organised crime, at least some gave the impression of organisation. The only reason he thought the gangs could keep growing as they did, resided in the equal incompetence of government, which in turn said something fundamental about Mexico. At the time of his death not only had he decided to become politically involved directly, he was also working on a book called Labyrinth of Solicitude: Hope for a New Mexico. It was a play on Octavio Paz’s famous account of the country, but this time looking towards the future and not the past, and suggesting ways in which Mexicans could find political methods by which to be kind to each other. He left a four year old daughter, and an estranged wife.
I admired this man, Roberto Minguel, immensely: and like a number of other writers he was someone I would look up to, but also one of those men who, even though I’d never met them, would somehow be looking down on me. They were usually dedicated to the one journalistic cause, were fighting for their country, and a belief in it. Any notion of justice and fairness was secondary to the predicament in which they found themselves, and he admired a couple of journalists from Russia, and one from Naples likewise. He never felt they had put themselves at risk without having a very good reason for doing so.
When I returned to London a couple of days later, early on a Sunday evening, I opened the front door to the house and called out to Katya. The house was a mess, and not the type of chaotic state that we would sometimes leave it when both of us were so busy we had no time to tidy up and the cleaner had still to come. No, this was a different type of mess: no dishes had been done; bottles of wine lay empty on the coffee table, I even noticed a couple of broken plates swept up into the corner of the kitchen still sitting by the dustpan and brush. I called Katya again and there was still no reply. I went up the winding staircase and looked into the main bedroom. There she was lying in bed, the clothes left lying on the floor, and a bottle of wine on the bedside table, with a tumbler stained with drank wine next to it instead of a wine glass.
I moved towards her body and noticed her sobbing, and as I leaned over her she pushed me away. What is wrong I asked, and she said nothing was wrong, as if wrong was too weak a word for the state of her feelings. All she said was that she wanted me to leave, to find a hotel, or stay at a friend’s. She would move out soon, she promised, when she could get herself out of bed. I knew that Katya had finished a case just before I had gone to Paris and had lost it. But she would never usually react like this, and yet I couldn’t think what else might have been the reason. I asked if it would be okay if I slept in the box-room: it had a skylight and space enough for a bed and a bedside table. I could clear out the stuff there, I said. But she was insistent: please go.
I stayed at a friend’s place in Highgate for a week, and would try phoning Katya each day but would only get the answering machine. At the weekend I left a message saying I would be coming round the following evening to pick up some things, and if she didn’t want to see me it would be best if she vacated the place for a while. I expected the back door to be locked when I arrived and Katya to be out, but the door was unlocked and as I went through the kitchen, and passed through the sitting room I saw the house was still messier than before. Dishes hadn’t been done; wine bottles and take-away boxes were on the coffee table. I called up to the bedroom and received no reply and climbed up the winding staircase in the living room that led onto the landing and the two bedrooms and the bathroom. I knocked on our bedroom door and still heard nothing. I opened the door and saw Katya lying in bed, her back to the door. I asked her if she was okay as I came towards the bed, and she turned slowly, her face a smear of tears. What is wrong I said. He is dead, she replied. I looked bemused, I suppose, and asked her who had died, and she said Roberto, and said it with such loss that I immediately assumed they had been lovers.
Yet as we talked after she got up, showered and came down the stairs where I had been tidying away the things, she said no they had not been lovers. As I made some tea she said that perhaps they should have been but they weren’t. They had met that week in Buenos Aires through the lawyer friend she had talked about, but she never mentioned Minguel, at first because she thought I hadn’t been interested in what she was doing in the city, and after the first couple of days because she wanted to keep a secret from me: it was perhaps an act of quiet vindictiveness. But by the end of her trip she knew she had feelings for him, but also knew that he had a wife and child. He said he was breaking up with his wife but isn’t this what many men would say when they find themselves attracted to another woman? It diluted their complicity rather than augmented it, and anyway wasn’t she still with someone also? She talked as though I wasn’t quite there, and yet it was the closest we had had to a conversation in a year or two.
I asked her if she saw him again, and she said that he had been to London twice over the last year. They had gone out to dinner, walked through Hyde Park and went to see a couple of films. Nothing sexual had taken place, but this was perhaps because she felt there was no hurry: that they would eventually be together. It was as though it could have become passionate with the first kiss but not until, and they so enjoyed talking to each other that the kiss never came because there was never the space for the awkward silence that could have instigated it. Again she was talking to me as if I wasn’t there, or rather as though she was talking to a friend and not her partner. I didn’t feel she deliberately wanted to hurt me, but was in such pain herself that my feelings didn’t matter very much at all.
Later that evening as I slept in the spare bedroom I thought of this odd situation: that I would soon move out; that my partner was in love with another man but there would be no chance for them to share a life together, but no space for me to live with her either. I was reminded of a line from a short story I had read years ago: “whatever people liked to think, situations (if not scenes) were usually three-way – there was somebody else always.” Perhaps – and maybe not always another person, just a preoccupation, a need to escape from the other person into one’s work, one’s hobbies, one’s friends.
I moved out a few weeks later. I now live in a terraced house in Newcastle, bought with the money Katya gave me for my share of the house, and in a city which was home before I went off to university. I travel little, and have retrained as a schoolteacher – working part-time in a school that isn’t known for its high achievements. I sometimes teach the kids privately, and charge far below the competitive rate, and still write articles, but often on issues that concern the north east. A couple of years have passed since Roberto Minguel’s death, and I have no news from Katya. I am not sure if she thinks a great deal about him, but I know I do. I think of him through her, seeing my inadequacies and failures through her admiration and love for another man. I don’t doubt he would find it strange knowing that he is living through a woman he loved, being thought about by a man she no longer cared for, but maybe there is something political in such tortuous a formulation, as if our conscience should always come from the dead. I often think this when I look at people in the north east whose grandparents fought for a better society on two fronts: in a World War and in seeking a post-war welfare state, and sometimes I think further back still – to the Jarrow marchers who would go on hunger walks determined to have their voices heard. I might not be taking the risks that Minguel happened to take, but I think I am acting with an integrity that for years I would refuse as I pursued instead what I can only now call egoistic concerns. Perhaps I wear my hairshirt too openly, or too lightly. That is for others to decide, and though I can’t say I am happy, my unhappiness allows me a certain peace.