This page as PDF



On a couple of occasions when I went into an Edinburgh friend’s bathroom I would see a photo on the wall but paid it little attention. It was apparently no more than a picture of a demonstration against the Iraq war, and ever slightly more than that because in the picture, a high angled shot of protestors, there was, in the centre of the photo, a Greek friend of his.

The first time I looked at this picture would have been about a year after it was taken, the second time, a year after that. Any other occasion when I had reason to use the bathroom, I didn’t feel the need to look at the picture. And yet over the last couple of days, visiting my friend, whenever I’ve used his bathroom, I’ve felt compelled to look at this photo, compelled to search it for clues, as if it had another story to tell.  And indeed I now believe it does have a tale to tell, a story peripheral to the image but now of relevance to my own life.

But let me go back a few months to an avant garde conference I attended, and where I met a fellow sceptic, another person who believed that whilst she had nothing against experimental cinema, there was something decidedly insincere about a conference about experimental film that had no sense of the experimental in the form it took. All the lectures were factual, descriptive or conventionally analytic, and though the films were more adventurous, the audience members were less so. Whilst most of the academics at the conference seemed quite happy to sit through numerous interminable lectures, they were less keen to sit through the work. On the first evening, at an early avant-garde film, half of the conference audience skipped the work altogether, and half of the audience who did make it, left halfway through.

I had strayed into the conference almost by accident, but it was an accident that quickly took on a design of its own. I was finishing off a literature PhD on the American writer Paul Auster, over at Glasgow University, and just happened to be visiting the aforementioned Edinburgh friend, Nikos, who said there was an avant-garde conference that weekend. I never really saw Auster as much of an avant-gardist, but I knew his work was interested in notions of experimentalism, and knew of course that he was a close friend and an occasional collaborator of Sophie Calle’s – an artist whose life and work was quite experimental: Auster himself discusses its nature in Leviathan, though allowing Calle to hide under the pseudonym of Maria. Nikos exited the conference after the first day, but I found there was something fascinating about an avant-garde weekend that seemed to me as conservative as any other, and decided I wanted to hang around and find out what motivated people to study this most arcane of cinematic areas.

On the second day of the conference I listened dutifully to the papers, and asked the occasional polite question. During the tea break and the lunch break I would get into conversations with avant-garde experts, and I would ask questions that were a little less polite. I enquired of one Swedish academic why this subject and he said it was an ongoing interest since he’d made a couple of experimental shorts himself whilst he was at university back in the early seventies. I had heard his paper early that morning and so I asked whether he thought his own paper should have reflected the experimentalism of the subject. He saw no reason why it shouldn’t, but also no reason why it should. It was a smooth act of argumentative extrication, and he just as smoothly extricated himself from the whole situation as he looked across the room, saw there was somebody he needed to talk to, and left.

It was then, perhaps, that another act of contingency took place: at that moment a petite, black-haired young German woman walked into the conference hall looking a little confused. As I was the one person who wasn’t talking to anybody at that moment, she asked if I had seen someone called Jean Millet, an experimental filmmaker who should have been arriving at the conference sometime that morning. She explained she was a friend of his; that she had no real interest in the avant-garde, and was only really here to see her friend, who should have arrived from his base in Paris several hours ago. I joked that she was speaking to the right person, the right person in the sense that I had little interest in avant-garde film either. We both laughed and it very strangely turned out that we had something else in common: Orkney. I lived there between the age of eight and sixteen; she made a film there a year previously. She said she would really like to make another film on the island, and I said I would be more than happy to talk about the place to her. I also knew her to see anyway. Edinburgh, where I’d lived before starting my PhD, isn’t a particularly large city, and people interested in the arts, and café culture, tend to slouch towards the same half a dozen places. I’m sure I had seen her at the cinema on a number of occasions, and probably in cafes also.

We arranged to meet the following weekend, at eight o’clock on a Sunday evening, over at one of the art house cinemas in the city, in its newly refurbished café bar. When I arrived I wasn’t sure how formally I should greet her; whether it was a date or simply a meeting. As I moved towards the table I noticed she had a glass of white wine in front of her, jostling for space with what looked like the full contents of a Sunday newspaper sitting on the small, round table. I greeted her with no more than a polite hi, and that was the first word in what turned out to be a seven hour conversation. At one stage in the evening, at around eleven, a friend who worked in the cinema came over and had a cigarette with us whilst on his break. He had seen me arriving to meet Esther at eight, and he asked us if we usually had such long conversations with people. We both looked at each other and laughed, but didn’t say anything, in a rare moment of silence.

At about twelve we went back to Esther’s place, around the corner from the art cinema, and she opened a bottle of wine. I’d had a social glass with her initially, but moved onto herbal tea thereafter, and I asked for more of the same. She said she sometimes worried that she might become an alcoholic – she could easily consume a bottle of an evening, and did so several nights a week. Yet it didn’t show at all in her skin: she was thirty but looked no more than twenty five. I said it was at twenty six that I more or less gave up drinking, and so hadn’t been drunk in ten years. She explained that evening she could make love to somebody sober but felt she needed a drink to talk; needed to drink to express that chaos within her. She said that it seemed to her either I had no chaos within me, or I had little problem expressing it.

Luckily we had created both enough intimacy and enough explanatory space for me to be able to offer an explanation without obviously offending her. I said that when I stopped drinking it was because I wanted to turn that chaos into reason. I wanted to make sense of my feelings instead of letting them remain internally incoherent. This didn’t mean that I could make sense of every aspect of my life, of course not, but it did mean that I always felt in a position of moving towards sense. I talked about the astonishing, joyous optimism of lucidity, and said I believed that so often people take our capacity for language as a curse. I paraphrased the Italian writer Buzzati’s comments in a short story where he says man is an unforeseen anomaly which came about during the evolutionary process, hardly the result to which evolution necessarily had to lead. The other bit I managed to quote: “Is it really conceivable, in fact, that nature’s workshop deliberately put into circulation an animal that is simultaneously weak, very intelligent, and mortal, that is, in other words, inevitably unhappy?”  She smiled and thought that in general she agreed with Buzatti. I smiled back and said we didn’t have to. I wondered whether much avant-garde cinema also took the chaos for what it was; I was interested I said in narrative not for its conventions, but for the way it can shape chaos.

We didn’t sleep together on that occasion, perhaps out of an honourable chastity, where we refused to sully a conversation with the possibility that it was merely a precursor, but we did the following weekend, the next time that we met. Over the next few weeks and months it developed into what most people would term a relationship, but whenever we argued I felt it was associated with our different perspectives on Buzatti’s comment, even though I’m sure Esther would disagree. She would probably say it was more about the various female friends whom I knew before I had met her. Female acquaintances whom I never pretended I was not attracted to; but friends who would remain so – I insisted I could only sleep with one woman at a time, and she was the woman with whom I was sleeping. Yet for all those months I was very reluctant to say I loved Esther, and equally reluctant to say I wanted a commitment. It was as though my need to rationalise all my feelings, to make sense of each possible and actual emotion, meant I could not say the words I love you, nor say that I didn’t want to sleep with anyone else. Yet Esther would sometimes say she loved me, and I would always kiss her fondly and say thanks and hug her firmly, but the words wouldn’t come.

So perhaps this combination of my reluctance to have a relationship, my inability to say that I loved her, and my continuing friendships with various female acquaintances, whom I acknowledged were attractive, justified actions of a few weeks ago. But I am not quite so sure, and this is where we should return to that picture in my friend’s bathroom, for it was in that picture I saw a face I had no reason to focus upon until very recently. Over a series of weeks, in the months leading up to this incident, Esther would ask how serious I felt towards her, and on each occasion I would say I was serious but uncommitted, serious about meeting up with her and making each moment meaningful, but not so serious that I could say I wanted a relationship. But was there something in that picture that justified my reluctance? Now of course it would be absurd to suggest that I had some second sight in relation to a picture, but might we have very good instincts when it comes to a lover’s feelings towards us? I always felt that while Esther’s love towards me was stronger than mine towards her, I also believed that if I weren’t seeing her I might be single, whilst if she weren’t seeing me she would inevitably be seeing someone else.

Let us call this the first emotional realisation, the awareness that I was the most important man in her life, undeniably, but there would be another if I wasn’t around. The second realisation lay in who might replace me. Esther said a couple of times that a few months before we met she was at a festival over in Croatia, where she befriended a local whom she found very attractive. The festival was in the capital, Zagreb, and he’d very kindly spent a day showing her around the town, as well as recommending local films she should watch. I asked if anything happened between them, and she jokingly said that was her business and not mine. Usually I think I would have let this type of comment pass. After all what rights did I have over a woman with whom I refused to have a conventional relationship, and over an incident that happened before we had even met? Yet I sensed in her coyness a secrecy that was bigger than the question of whether or not she had kissed or perhaps even slept with him. And anyway I had been faithful to her during all the time we’d been sleeping together, even during a period of about six weeks when she had gone off to visit her parents who were living in Australia. Would I not be entitled to mild irritation over my fidelity in deed if she couldn’t be honest in relation to so simple an enquiry?

Nevertheless there I was still refusing to commit to a relationship, and said that I needed to see myself as, if not single, then at least uncoupled. I realised this involved a degree of bad faith, but thought it would have been even worse faith to commit to Esther when I felt a degree of ambivalence, and still had this strong desire to be autonomous. I said I believed some people create space in their lives for another even when they were single, and felt their lives partially empty until conjoined with another. I always felt my life was full, though, and to share it with another was always going to be difficult. That, I explained, was why after we would spend a night together, I would want space to be alone the next day. It wasn’t that I wanted rid of her, not at all; it was that I wanted that solitary space back.

Just because this was my rationale, that didn’t mean of course that Esther accepted it, and just because I said I’d been faithful during that period of time, didn’t mean she would believe me. After all, sometimes her friends would say to her they thought I was a womanizer – they would sometimes see me going to see films and meeting in cafes with other women.

So one evening she said that the friend from Zagreb was visiting the city that weekend, to attend a film conference, and she said to me if I didn’t want a relationship there was a good chance that something would happen with him. I said if she really felt she wanted a fling with her friend, then did I really have the right to stop her? I asked her, though, if she could as readily sleep with someone so soon after sleeping with me, just how much respect would she have for him, for me, and for herself? That, she said, was finally none of my business. I said I supposed she was right. As we sat on a beautiful mid-June evening in the garden of her basement flat, where I would usually stay when in Edinburgh rather than at Nikos’s, allowing the sun to warm our faces even at around eight in the evening, I recall looking at the leafy trees all around us and thinking I might look back on the night as an idyllic, final moment. But I never ventured that observation to Esther. Shortly afterwards I got up to leave and offered a final sardonic comment that she should keep her beauty sleep for the weekend – her friend might want to take advantage of it when he arrived.

I suppose I never really thought Esther would sleep with him; or if she did that it would be nearer the end of what was going to be a five day trip, once they had got to know each other. She said they had only really met and talked on the last evening of the festival, and that they didn’t know each other at all. Would they really deposit themselves between the sheets that morning after he arrived? Added to which, Esther’s friends were having a party the next evening, and I was very much invited. Would it not be extremely awkward for Esther if she had both her new man and her very recently disposed ex in the same vicinity?

My sense that Esther hadn’t slept with him was confirmed in my mind by a phone call: in the early afternoon she phoned and asked if I wanted to join Goran and her for a drink just before going on to the party. The party was in the Old Town, and she proposed we should meet in a pub near the party venue.  Sure, I said. Yet as the three of us sat having a drink, I felt a certain tension between Esther and Goran, and between Goran and myself. I knew Goran was attracted to Esther; she had said that he had made a pass at her in Croatia, but I believed it was more than that. Later at the party I confronted her and asked if anything had happened. She admitted they had slept together that afternoon. I couldn’t help myself – I immediately accused her of sleeping with any man that showed a passing interest. She looked at me and said she assumed I wanted her to sleep with other people: didn’t I want an open relationship? Even if I did, I said, then did that mean sleeping with damn near a stranger, and then inviting me along for a drink immediately afterwards?

After this I left the party and didn’t return. I could hear Esther coming down the stairs after me, but as soon as I was outside the building I started to run. It would have been about an hour later, whilst I was sitting alone in a café, that I saw her walking past. She glanced inside, and then, half with delight, half with horror, looked at me, and her body language asked if she could come in. We talked for about forty minutes, and she pleaded with me, saying that she cared for me and not this other man. He was little more than a stranger she insisted. Exactly, I replied. Eventually I got up to leave saying there was nothing more I could add. I got a late night bus back to Glasgow and that seemed to be that. She phoned me a number of times over the following couple of weeks, but I never returned her calls. I felt such a sense of revulsion towards her, and such a sense of relief escaping from that party, that these were the images I kept in my mind when I was tempted to phone her.

But now of course another image is in my mind, an image that as I suggested I’d seen many times before, but only a couple of nights ago, whilst over at my friend’s house, did it gain something from the scrutiny. In Niko’s bathroom, the photo on the wall showed Goran undeniably at this demo, waving a fist in the air. I was under the impression Goran had never been to Scotland before, and I’m sure I recall Esther saying it was his first visit. Now I know that wasn’t so, and of course I found myself wondering whether Esther hadn perhaps met him before in Scotland. After all, I knew Esther could economize with the truth – occasionally she would tell me she was meeting a friend, and then, if pressed, later tell me it was an ex-boyfriend that she’d seen – but I knew she was generally an honest person. When she insisted nothing had ever happened again with an ex I always believed her, and still believe her now.

But I am less sure whether to believe her in relation to her Croatian friend. I worked out for how long Esther had been in Edinburgh – she arrived in 2000 she said. This demonstration would have been early in 2003: had they met, there? Had they met at some festival before that?  Perhaps it would only take a phone call to find out, but I wasn’t so sure: maybe I would only encounter a lie. I recall Esther once saying that as a rule she always told the truth, but would very occasionally allow herself to lie as an occasional act of freedom, as a means with which to protect her own need for privacy. Would this have been one of those instances, and all the more justifiable since we were no longer together?

What I did instead was to work through all the permutations, to try to understand my relationship with Esther.  I wanted above all else to wonder whether that sexual episode with Goran was a one-off or a continuation. If it was a one-off maybe I could be less angry, less resentful, and willing to accept that she did it out of loneliness and as a reaction: that she would never have slept with him if I had shown signs of commitment. But then again maybe she showed her love to me after the event. After realizing how angry I was she came to me, and ignored her friend. Now this may have cost her more than I realized, if he was somebody for whom she’d had strong feelings in the past, feelings that went back much further than her feelings for me. Maybe they had met at a festival some years ago, perhaps for a long time they were waiting for the right set of circumstances to be together. But then she met me, someone who was ambivalent in my feelings, uncommitted in my deeds, and eventually she’d had enough. So when she heard Goran was coming over she was happy, and found that she still did have feelings for him; only to find in my reaction that I also had feelings for her, and she realized how much stronger her feelings were for me than for him. How must he have felt as she ran out of the party looking for me, how did he feel knowing nobody at the party, and presumably spending hours waiting for her return? It’s when thinking such thoughts that feelings of intermittent tenderness come over me, only to be followed by feelings of restless revulsion. I suppose whether I look at the affair with Goran as a fling, or as a long term burgeoning relationship, it doesn’t really affect the feeling: the feeling is like one of those psychological experiments where one moment you’re looking at a vase, the next two faces. I seem to feel the need to search out a less emotionally fraught process. A good way to start, I suspect, is to ask Nikos if he knows who the person waving his fist in the demo poster is, and who it is who might know him. Then again I could just give Esther a phone, or alternatively keep ignoring her calls. What I do know, I suppose, is that it would require narrative of a certain kind to sort it all out, but storytelling that contained at the same time something of Buzatti’s irrational animal, with my feeling that I might be closer to that animal than Esther ever was.


©Tony McKibbin