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Dissembling

1

Initially the older woman and her friend were both nothing more than a distraction from the reading. It was an unequivocally warm summer’s day in Edinburgh, the fifth in a row, and the weather could justifiably pass itself off as part of a heat wave. Each afternoon, from Monday to Friday, I’d been cycling from the other side of town where I lived, to read for a couple of hours at a table outside this old-style French café. It caught the sun beautifully in the late afternoon; and I would sit there with an Earl Grey tea and read from the two books I happened to be reviewing for a forthcoming issue of the city’s listings magazine.

But on this day I couldn’t concentrate, as the two women beside me were talking effusively about, amongst other things, a recent wedding. One of the women was presumably in her forties and the other fifteen or so years older. The older one looked not just from another generation, but almost from a different time: she didn’t have the blasé attitude of the other woman, apparently a perennial traveller who could talk about various destinations with no more than a semi-colon separating them. This older woman generally nodded or offered an exclamation that suggested she was impressed by the other woman’s travels. The younger one talked about the trips she had been on over the last year, before settling down to discuss a wedding that she had attended in Galway the previous weekend – and where, I gleaned, the older woman’s daughter had been as well.

Now, up until this point in their conversation they were but a mild irritation; however, when the younger woman said the older woman’s daughter was looking absolutely beautiful, and that Madeline was the most lovely creature at the wedding, that even the bride was overshadowed, I became curious. A couple of years ago I went out with a Madeline for six months, and it was a strange, secretive relationship, and one in which I never quite managed to scratch any more than the surface of the mind of the person I was seeing. Could this be the same Madeline? The book became my alibi as I eavesdropped into their conversation. When a few details were offered; that Madeline was now doing an anthropological post-grad, focusing on the Incas, and that her brother Jonathan was a geneticist, it seemed inevitable that it was the same person.

Madeline was now engaged to someone called Michael, of whom both Madeline’s mother and her friend clearly approved. “He’s so attentive; he’s a doter.” I waited to hear if they would drop my own name into the discussion; even though I knew this was unlikely. Not only had Madeline kept me very much from her parents; I’m sure she kept even my name out of any of the conversations she had with them.

I always wondered whether this coyness on Madeline’s part lay in her being embarrassed by me, being embarrassed by her parents, in not taking our relationship seriously, or perhaps because she wanted to retain a subtle mystery. She’d said her parents were from a town on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and that she would rarely visit them. She said they never really approved of the way that she lived; and because she a seemed to me to live quite conscientiously – she ate well, drank moderately, took only the occasional toke and gained much meaning and purpose from her subject, anthropology – I assumed the parents must have been bigots, narrow-minded, perhaps even slightly mad. Listening to her mother talk, however, I just got the sense of a proud parent, though with no especial pride within herself. She gave the impression of being one of those women who lived through her husband and her children. Yet the sense I had from the few things Madeline said about her parents was that they didn’t much care to guess where she was coming from or where she was going to: Madeline, I always thought, gave off the air of an orphan.

We split up when she went off to study for a year in Mexico City, and though it presumably felt like a natural split for her; it proved to be immensely difficult for me. After all, we’d met in the last couple of months of my BA, and halfway through hers, and so though I graduated I decided to stay in the city, rather than returning to Liverpool, and searched for work here during that summer and beyond. The university was looking for secretaries in their Office of Lifelong Learning, and I applied and got the job, managed to rent a studio flat for an extremely fair price, and so though Madeline was the motivation for my staying in the city, there were quickly other reasons for me to make Edinburgh my home. Especially considering that I knew Madeline would be leaving that September for a year abroad. Was my job and flat very short term; or was I actually committing to something long-term? As Madeline and I lay in bed that summer, looking at the stars through the skylight, I found myself wondering whether the following summer she would be back here with me, looking at the same stars.

But frequently that summer I would feel a wave of anxiety come over me, and it wasn’t just that Madeline would be leaving, and might subsequently leave me for good, but also that the parents I imagined she had would always prevent us from staying together. This sense lay in Madeline’s numerous idle comments about them, comments that never quite developed into conversations. For example she would say her mother never understood her, or her father only thought about money. She would say they had such expectations.

I created a world around these stray remarks, and imagined the mother and father living in a large house about twenty or thirty miles from the city, perhaps in the aptly named, moneyed village of Dollar. I saw someone who was obligated to do well at school, and who had private tutors for any subject that she was struggling with. It wasn’t that Madeline was especially evasive, but she seemed somehow impatient with her family, talking about her brother on only a couple of occasions, and it was on one of them that she told me about his job.

So obviously the conversation I was hearing at the table next to me was of more than casual interest. But no less so was how the mother appeared. As I was sitting half-reading my book, I would snatch tiny glances to see what Madeline’s mother looked like, but they were no more than snatches. Going to the toilet wouldn’t have afforded me a better view – it was in the other direction from where they were sitting – so I instead thought I would go and fetch another book from the pannier on my bike: to do so I would need to pass the table twice. The best vantage point was on the way back, and I noticed that while the trendier woman peripherally seemed much younger than Madeline’s mother, there was a look in Madeline’s mother’s face that seemed curiously ageless. Hers was the look of someone who neither lost sleep nor aged through withholding anger – she was not at all the sort of woman I had imagined.

But then imagined was the operative word, because Madeline never really told me enough about her parents to envisage them, merely to imagine them. I suppose the imagination was set to work by assuming that they were indeed Madeline’s antithesis; which in some ways now it seemed her mother was. Yet she didn’t seem to be problematically antithetical, just a woman who happened to be very Scottish. Her accent was, I thought I could discern, Highland, and her mind seemed close to cliché. When the friend said she believed the country was falling apart, Madeline’s mother replied: ‘some people say it’s been going to wrack and ruin for thirty years now. When I look back to when I was young, we really did have it good.” But where the friend’s comment was offered with a sense of irritated frustration; Madeline’s mother merely offered hers with a sympathetic air of resignation.

Shortly afterwards, as they ordered a coffee refill, the friend asked Madeline’s mother whether she was enjoying being back in the city. She replied that Stockbridge suited her fine. It had nice cafes in which she would while away the afternoon, and that she thought it would be so much easier to forget about Fred being back in the hustle and bustle.

 

2

The following week the weather was dull, so I would spend my afternoons reading in a café on my own side of town, a café that had no outside tables but a lovely view of the castle. The idea of eavesdropping into another conversation with Madeline’s mother felt a bit futile, and I decided if I were to see her in a café again I would at least find some premise upon which to chat.

Over the next couple of weeks the weather was again mainly dismal, but there were two sunny days and I dutifully went off and sat outside the Stockbridge café, but there was no sign of Madeline’s mum. On these occasions I found myself mildly distracted by her absence, and would constantly look up from my book to see if she was going to pass by, or come and sit down. I realized that I wanted to know about her relationship with her daughter, and the feeling reminded me of a year ago when Madeline returned to Edinburgh, but a long time after she’d told me she didn’t want to see me any more.  A few months into her Mexico year she wrote me a very nice, very warm letter informing me she was seeing somebody else, and that, anyway, had we not agreed to part after that wonderful summer we had spent together? That was not a lie: we had agreed to separate; she adamantly and me reluctantly. She believed we could not sustain a relationship so many miles apart, and I admitted I wouldn’t be sure if I could afford to visit her even once. That last night, lying on the mattress that was the sum total of my bed, we just lay there holding hands, talking and caressing each other. I couldn’t make love: all the emotion had gathered in the pit of my stomach and I knew this melancholy, starlit night would be a raw memory for many months to come.  In the letter she mentioned that night, and said it was as beautiful an evening as she’d spend that summer, or any other, but she had met lots of fascinating people in Mexico, and didn’t even know if she would be returning to Scotland. That following summer she did return to Scotland, however; it’s just that I knew about it through a mutual friend, and I asked him whether she wanted to meet up with me. She’s reluctant, he admitted, but could be persuaded. I didn’t want to persuade her to do anything, but often when I was sitting in outdoor cafes or walking along the street, I hoped to see her pass by.

It must have been a full month after that first afternoon of distraction in the sun that I again saw her mother. It was a half sunny/ half-cloudy mid-summer day, but very warm, and when the sun was out, quite intense. She was sitting alone as I locked my bike to a nearby post, and, I noticed, as I approached the café, that she was reading. It was a book by a popular British writer, usually seen as not quite literature but more than pulp: the type of book I would have expected her to read. I’d read a section of it when it was published as a story in the New Yorker.

I ordered my Earl Grey and sat at the table next to hers, and waited to see if she would say something as I took out a recent book by a Croatian writer, a book I was reviewing for a Berlin magazine. I should say that I’ve never been much of a casual café talker; that I’ve never instigated conversations for the sake of it even if it was someone to whom I happened to be attracted. My proviso has always been the same: is the person reading something that makes me want to ask them about the book? Of course if I found the person attractive the book was merely a pretext, but it still needed this pretext. But what about if it’s the mother of the young woman with whom you were still perhaps in love?

Anyway, there seemed to be no space for starting a conversation; she was obviously engrossed in the book, and so I started reading mine. After about fifteen minutes she put the book down and looked out in front of her. She seemed to be looking at the road as if it were the sea, as if looking for something beyond that the horizon encapsulates so well but surely a road with numerous cars passing would merely mock. I waited for her reverie to finish, and asked her if she had the time. She replied sweetly, looked at me and then looked down again, but with the book still closed in front of her on the table. As I could see the cover from where I was sitting, I asked about the book, asked if the writer was as great as people were claiming.

“Oh this” she said tapping the book, as though her thoughts were obviously somewhere else altogether.

And then we started talking, talked for more than an hour, as she  said that she read now only for pleasure, though once she read for something more. When she was sixteen she came over from India, where her parents had lived for ten years, and she wanted to experience so much. She came alone, and first moved back to Glasgow – where she still had family – and then got a train to London – where she knew nobody. She giggled the giggle of a woman thirty years younger when saying this, and added that she moved here around 1964.

I’d been to India several years previously (in fact the spring before I met Madeline) and I asked where in India she had lived. She said Goa, in a small town called Chandor. Her great grandfather had been Portuguese, and the family owned land and one of the mansions.  I laughed and said that I knew the town well, had found it so fascinating that I had gone there twice. This was late in the tourist season, so there were still one or two other tourists visiting Braganza house, but the whole town had a mid-afternoon hush. It was as if, I said, the Portuguese had left the previous day. She looked at me and said what I was saying brought to mind the exodus that took place shortly after Goa was liberated. She said, many people they knew left; yet the family didn’t know where to go. They’d left Glasgow, because her father had no work, and went to Goa because they knew they could live very simply there. Extravagantly and simply. It may have sounded strange and contradictory, she said, but that was the way it was.

She went on to say that most Goans went back to Portugal, but her family had earlier settled in Glasgow and Scotland, and they had even fewer ties with Portugal than they did with Goa. So they just spent several years in Bombay. Her father managed to find work in a language school (though he was trained in engineering), and it was from there that she came back to Britain.

I thought back to the houses in Chandor and asked her where she lived, and she described a lovely stretch of road with houses on each side but far enough away from each other, and with enough trees and garden space to keep one’s sense of privacy. She went into a brief reverie, and I found myself doing so too. But where she was presumably thinking of an actual past, I found myself hypothesizing one. I imagined that Madeline and I met in a Goa that was still under Portuguese rule, and that Chandor was a sleepy town with a handful of inhabitants of which she was one. I moved into her family’s house, and made a living teaching English to the comfortable Portuguese living there. This reverie lasted no more than a handful of seconds, and much less coherently thought through than I’ve explained, and I was taken out of if by her mother’s comment that she wondered if her children would have been very different if they had stayed.

I asked her how many children she happened to have; she said two. I asked her about them, and waited with a sense of anticipation as she started by telling me about her eldest son. Afterwards she told me about Madeline. She said something like: Madeline is very beautiful. And she loves life. Sometimes I think Jonathan merely likes it – and that’s why he’s so good at living it. She seemed surprised by her own statement, and said, yes, that’s it. Madeline loves life too much. She went on to say that her daughter was not a dishonest person – she would never steal, never cheat somebody – but she was often unwilling to tell the truth because it somehow narrowed down the possibilities.

I could see Madeline’s mother was as keen to talk about her daughter as I was happy to listen. You see, she said, Madeline wants to live in a world that is always bigger than the one we can actually possibly live in, and this would lead her to be less than honest with people. For example, she said, there was one person Madeline was seeing a couple of years previously whom she would have liked to meet, but Madeline turned the person into a figure of such exaggerated qualities that he couldn’t have lived up to them. Madeline said to them that his family was international, they had properties all over the world, that she and this man, whose name she didn’t even know, were madly in love and that they would probably marry. Madeline’s mother said she was sure Madeline wasn’t telling the truth. She also wondered what fibs Madeline had told him. Did she present her parents as very rich or very poor, very well educated, or barely educated at all? She said she really thought Madeline liked this young man, but knew that, though she may well have loved him, would he know how to let her grow? And growth for Madeline was not conventional: it might include adopting another name, fictionalizing her past, her present, her profession. Not many people could live with that, could understand it.

I asked if her daughter was seeing anybody now. She said yes, that actually Madeline had got engaged. She said she had met Michael and immediately warmed to him. He is very, very loving, she said, and while he would seem a timid young man, he may be timid enough to let Madeline do what she does without challenge. He would be accepting, she said. I mentioned to her a line from a film where there is the suggestion a certain type of woman must be loved, and loved more than one’s own dignity. Perhaps, she half agreed.

 

3

 

What I’ve related above is of course a paraphrasing of that discussion, but also of another we had at the same café several days later. Madeline’s mother was more hesitant than I’ve suggested, and almost all her comments about Madeline were contained by a hushed loving voice, and on a couple of occasions she said how surprised she was that she was talking to a stranger about her daughter. As we parted I said we would probably come across each other again. I said I came to the café a couple of afternoons a week. She replied that so did she, and that it would be nice to meet on another occasion.

Now the man Madeline described as being from a very rich family was almost certainly me. Though the riches she ascribed happened to be greatly exaggerated; other details were correct. All except the name; and this was not because Madeline had lied to her, but because I had. When she initially asked me my name, when we first started talking, I impulsively lied. Or maybe it wasn’t so impulsive, but actually consistent with the ‘lie’ that I was perpetuating just by sitting there pretending not to know that she was the mother of a former girlfriend.

But what was it I was trying to do by befriending Madeline’s mother? I suppose I wanted to get close again to Madeline, and used her mother for that very purpose. Use however seems too strong a word; and I’m not even so sure if I didn’t see enough of Madeline in her mother to find her increasingly attractive. It was as if the more we talked the more she revealed, not only about her daughter, but also about her own resemblance to Madeline.

For some time after these chats I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Stockbridge café. It was the start of the festival, and so in between signing up people for our summer courses, I was also off catching shows, films and the odd book event. It would be too much to say I was too busy to think of Madeline, but it was true that for the first time in a very long time I happened to concentrate enthusiastically on other things.

It was at one of these shows that I met Sara. She was working at the book festival, and she was pretty, petite, tanned and undeniably healthy, with a smile that was winning rather than seductive: we were in the queue waiting for a show and got talking. She was beautiful in an inconspicuous way; and, after the first night we’d slept together, I looked at her as she was sleeping. I noticed her beauty maybe resided in this reposed state, and I recalled that with Madeline that was never the case. She was always at her most striking when reacting to somebody, when charming them I supposed. With Sara she seemed to have a beauty I felt I could trust; so self-contained, so unwilling to convince others of her charms, that many I’m sure would not have thought her beautiful at all. Pretty, yes, but beautiful?

Over the next week we were mainly together, though chiefly seeing shows, and then, as the festival came to a close, we explored the city by foot. One afternoon, after going through Dean Village and round by the galleries, we arrived in Stockbridge, and so I suggested we get a drink at one of my favourite cafes. As we approached, though, I could see Madeline’s mother sitting at one of the pavement tables with a young woman who, despite the change of image, could only have been Madeline. I stopped suddenly; and was about to turn back when I noticed that Madeline’s mother had noticed me and was waving. So we continued moving towards the café, and, as Sara and I approached their table, Madeline’s mother looked eager, and Madeline mildly amused. The look on my own face was probably slightly stricken, and Sara’s, I noticed, cheerfully inquiring.

 

4

Madeline’s mother insisted that we sit down, and she introduced me to Madeline, and I introduced them to Sara. Madeline’s mother mentioned that I was the young man she’d met on a couple of occasions and with whom she’d had very interesting conversations. Madeline smiled a smile that gave nothing away, and I tried to look composed. Sara suggested that she would order the drinks, and asked the others if they wanted anything else. They both shook their head. As Sara went off, the mother warmly said that she saw I had a lovely girlfriend. She was just telling Madeline only the other day that if she hadn’t got herself engaged; her own mum might have found the perfect man for her.

When Sara came back I kissed her and said thanks for ordering, and as she sat down I looked from her face to Madeline’s and back again. I came to the instant conclusion that while Madeline was much more striking, she was certainly no more beautiful – if we define beauty as the quality of the skin, the hair, the teeth, the eyes. Sara had what I would call an ‘honest’ beauty, where Madeline’s had always seemed to me a beauty contained by a masquerade. As I looked at her face for a shrewd few seconds, I realized I was no longer attracted to her, and central to this, I believed, was that her bewitching, dissimulating personality no longer interested me.

And yet I couldn’t deny at that moment it was a relief that she had lost none of her capacity for subterfuge, as she pretended never to have met me before. I was relieved not especially because of Sara, whom I would explain the whole situation to later, but because of Madeline’s mother. After all, this sweet, open and honest woman deserved better than to be used by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend to help him vicariously get closer to that daughter. But I’m not so sure if after our two meetings I wasn’t more interested in her spirit than her daughter’s life. I felt there was something in her manner, in her openness, which led me to Sara and away from Madeline. I hoped that Madeline, the master of secrets, would keep this one from her. It would be a great pity if her mother’s warmth towards me, and I believe the warmth I felt towards her, was reduced to but a game.  But Madeline was, for all her secretiveness, a person who was, in my experience, without malice. She was also someone who unlike me didn’t need to work out the permutations of a situation to know exactly how I had got to know her mother.  I’m sure she would have guessed that my initial interest in her mum would have been through my interest in her, though how I knew it was her mum wouldn’t especially concern her. As the four of us sat there drinking our teas and coffees, making small talk, I felt in some tiny way a complicity with Madeline that I had never felt in all the time we were seeing each other, and yet my feelings were for the mother who would often look at whatever passed in front of her eyes with a benign gaze, and for Sara, who I noticed had a surprisingly similar expression on her own face.

 

©Tony McKibbin