Download as PDF Download PDF

Earl Grey

 

1

He assumed it was an odd enough request to show surprise when a waitress said there was another regular who would order an Earl Grey tea whenever they visited the cafe and also ask for the tea in the strainer to be put on the side. Earl Grey is already one of the weakest of teas: who else would be inclined to want to minimize its strength by adding it themselves? At first he thought it was probably someone from France, Greece, somewhere abroad where usually the hot water came in the pot, and the teabag separately. This often annoyed him when he was travelling: by the time the hot water and the teabag arrived the water was half-cold and he dipped the tea bag into a pot half-heartedly: another failed order as he promised to get coffee the next time, even if he never much liked the taste and disliked the after taste.

Anyway, at this cafe here in Edinburgh he knew the water was always still boiling when it came to his table, and adding the tea afterwards didn’t ruin the flavour, even if, when he ordered, he always did so a little bashfully, as if he weren’t quite obeying the rules. After all, in Britain, where tea is often drunk and properly made, one pours the hot water over the leaves to give it a proper flavour. Now, though, he felt an unusual complicity with a stranger over so negligible an issue, and yet perhaps it is on the question of eccentricity that we often feel an affinity with others.

2

He could not pretend that drinking weak Earl Grey was his only odd characteristic. There he was at thirty five incapable of feeling fit for life: he had worked for a dozen years as a night porter in a city centre hotel, working three nights a week on average, and earning enough money to pay the mortgage on the studio flat his mother had helped him buy not far from the hotel. He didn’t drive, didn’t drink, had never been in anything others would usually call a relationship. He had a brief holiday affair with a Greek waitress ten years ago while staying in a hostel in Athens, a similar brief affair with a French girl he met in a cinema foyer in Paris a few years afterwards, and a third with someone in Spain. Apart from those three assignations that lasted no more than the holiday, he hadn’t been out with anyone since he was at school. The thought of marrying, having children, sharing a home with someone, didn’t so much horrify him as remain unimaginable: he couldn’t conceive of such a life any more than he could see himself conceiving a child within it.

Yet he did sometimes wonder what might make him feel safe and secure with someone, and thinking about this woman as potentially as eccentric as he happened to be, made him wonder what made the women he saw in Athens, Paris and Granada at all attracted to him. He was unexciting to look at, he supposed, with straight, light brown hair he had always worn in the same cut, pale skin that became reddish in the sun, and a dress sense that he had always tried to make as inconspicuous as possible. He admired those who could give a city glamour and colour, but the closest he ever got to looking stylish was when at fifteen he wore jeans with rips in them. His mind was not really more interesting than his looks, he would sometimes think, but also on occasion believed this wasn’t fair: his unusual way of doing things, his unusual way of existing in the world, made him impervious to cliché: he never assumed there was an automatic way of looking at situations.

Was this what Penny found attractive about him in Athens and why they frequently emailed each other for a year afterwards; was this why Camille enjoyed his company enough during those ten days in Paris and had been in contact intermittently thereafter, and what about Carmen whom he met in Seville? He remembered saying to Penny when she came over to his table and asked if he had ordered anything that he had never ordered anything in his life; he could only ask politely. Though it was obvious her English was fluent she looked at him with a puzzled expression, and he explained that for him ordering had connotations of control, of the dictatorial. She understood the words he used but looked askance at the manner he was using them. While most strangers with whom he would talk to like this would shake their head and get on with their business, Penny responded differently. She smiled and asked whether he was typical of the Englishman abroad (he corrected her saying he was Scottish) or was this his very own way of communicating with the world. He supposed it was his, and he knew it wasn’t about trying to be clever, nor an issue of social incompetence. It was a certain type of integrity. It really had nothing to do with saying things he assumed would be witty, nor saying things that he said obliviously. He saw himself neither as arrogant nor autistic, but then someone might say who does? The advantage of a third person narrator is we can intrude and say in this instance Martin’s self-appraisal was accurate. Penny was the first woman in years he had met who seemed to comprehend this place between arrogance and autism since a girlfriend at school, and so she asked him, after he read in the cafe for more than an hour, and as he was paying the bill, whether he wanted to see a band play later that night. He had nothing else to do, he admitted, and she smiled, again accepting that this young man was neither being rude nor incompetent, but someone incapable of furnishing his comments with the socially requisite.

3

In between working at the cafe (where he would always order Earl Grey) Penny would not so much show him around Athens as wander around the city with him. Occasionally she would tell him about a famous monument; sometimes he would ask her about a district in the capital, but mostly they walked and talked of other things. She said she was the odd one out in her family: her two brothers and her sister were all older than her and were successful in their careers; she didn’t even know if she wanted one. She didn’t know if she would ever want to get married and have children either, but felt that these were the two options available in her life that would allow her to be accepted by her family, even by many of her friends. She talked about Greek culture as oppressive: not just the Ancient writers and philosophers modern Greeks were cowed by, but the very family itself, and her peer group. One must stay thin, look beautiful, visit family regularly. She sometimes yearned to get away from the country not because she wanted to live anywhere else in particular, but that she felt heavy with demand and expectation. Talking to him made her lighter than she had felt for such a very long time.

She said this to him in the apartment she was sharing with two others in Exarcheia. She was alone in the flat for most of the month: her flat mates as with many Athenians went off to an island during August; yet this year she decided to stay, and was surprised that the stifling heat of the city bothered her less than the stifling company of some of her friends during the rest of the year. They thought she was crazy to spend August in the capital, but she believed it was probably the sanest thing she had done in years. After all, she added, she wouldn’t have met him. She gave him a quick peck on the lips: neither quite a gesture of desire but more than a touch of affection, and he responded by kissing her more firmly even if he somehow was watching himself doing so as in a film: he hadn’t kissed anyone since a teenager. After that, everything else seemed quite natural as they shared a bed for the rest of his trip, finding in each other’s bodies what in the first couple of days walking they had found exploring each other’s minds. He had half-planned to see other parts of Greece: the white tower of Thessaloniki, the theatre of Dionysus, the Corinth canal. But instead he stayed in and around Athens.

4

After he returned to Edinburgh, they would be in contact through email a couple of times a week, but never talked on the phone. They both agreed it was a holiday affair, that they would probably never see each other again, but they seemed to need their romance to have a residual life in cyberspace. Sometimes their emails would be long, elaborate explorations of a situation, with Penny asking for his perspective on an event in her life; sometimes he would offer a long email about his thoughts on a book, or comment on a walk he had done. Generally her emails reflected her hectic place in the world; his a quiet existence with few contacts. Many of his remarks were based on observations; hers on social entanglements. It would be a crisis with her flatmates, a problem with a cousin, an argument with her mother. After a year the gap between the content of his emails and hers was enormous: why were they still writing to each other? He started to write shorter ones, sometimes sending no more than a quote, or a song. Hers in turn became shorter, and a couple of months after that they stopped emailing except very occasionionally.

For those first few months after he returned from Greece, he would feel a mixture of loneliness and companionship. He missed those days in Athens, but also knew that he could expect a message in his inbox regularly enough for this to feel less like loneliness than a form of a distant complicity. When they more or less stopped emailing he accepted that his life again was entirely in Edinburgh. During those months of contact he would sometimes idly wonder if he would leave the city, move to Athens and try and make money teaching. He had looked into TEFL courses and almost enrolled, but though he did quite well at school, he left as soon as he had finished his Highers (he didn’t stay on for sixth year) because he couldn’t tolerate the environment. He didn’t like the idea of education. Too much was about competition and success, and his school was a well regarded comprehensive in the centre of Edinburgh that was proud that it could compete with the top private schools in the city in getting pupils into good universities. When teachers would ask him where he wanted to go, he would reply that he wished to get out of education as quickly as possible. He wanted to avoid institutions; not aspire to still grander ones. Perhaps even teaching in a language school would be another instance of the institutional. What he liked so much about the hotel in which he worked was that it was more like a hostel than anything else, and indeed had been exactly that a few years before he started working there. It had belonged to the Scottish Youth Hostel association, but they were more interested in expanding their city centre hostels and sold some of their smaller properties. The one in which he found himself working in was one of those sold off: a place bought up by a couple of brothers who were left a hefty inheritance and didn’t quite know what to do with it, just as they had never quite known what to do with their lives. They were in their early thirties and thought about buying a restaurant (though they knew nothing about food) a pub (neither really cared that much for a drink) before deciding on a hotel they would run a bit like a hostel (they often went hiking around the Highlands and stayed in hostels regularly).

Its twenty five rooms (half doubles; half singles) were reasonably priced, and tended to attract international folk who were looking for more than a dorm bed without quite demanding the luxuries of a hotel. There was a tearoom but no bar, a canteen area where people could eat but no restaurant. He usually worked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, arriving at eleven and finishing at seven. Over the years he met people from at least thirty nations, and would sometimes speak to some of the guests till dawn. His tasks were few: to book late comers in, to make sure the communal kitchen area was clean and tidy, to open the door to any latecomers after the main door was locked after one, and to make sure the building was secure. Often he would sit and read a book from two till six, and pause for anything from a few minutes to a few hours and talk to anyone who wanted a late night chat.

Yet during all this time he never once met a woman to whom he was attracted: perhaps because he saw the women as customers and it would be unprofessional to prey on them, and anyway, many were there as part of a couple. Did he see travelling as the opposite: that it gave him an opportunity not only to meet women, but somehow not quite be himself? If in the hostel he was the professional who everyone could rely on, the soothing presence sitting on the couch by the hotel bay window drinking tea and reading, when travelling he felt indeterminate. When he travelled he would often read in a cafe too, would usually wander around alone as he often did in Edinburgh, but it was as though he was open to change abroad just as he was closed to opportunity at home. He could not deny that his life in Scotland felt safe. The job paid poorly but seemed very secure; the flat was compact but he owned it. As long as nothing more was expected of him, as long as no one else came into his life, he felt it complete.

5

He met Camille outside a cinema on Rue des ecoles, a place that usually showed English language films and thus felt he was entitled to ask her in English after the screening what she made of the movie. She was standing by the entrance smoking a cigarette holding an umbrella; he was dawdling while a light shower passed: he hadn’t even a waterproof jacket. They were the only two people standing there, and as he asked her about the film she replied that it perhaps wasn’t one of the director’s best, but it was so rarely shown. He wasn’t much of a film expert, even much of a film lover: it was one of the few films showing in English in the city, it was raining and he went in. He didn’t tell her any of this as they talked, but instead said what he liked about it was the actor: he seemed so comfortable in his own body that he made others around him feel the same. He mentioned another film the actor had been in. She knew of it, and he believed in both films he had a kind of inner integrity that meant any action was never compromised by interaction. He thought that was rare in actors; even rarer in life perhaps. She seemed curious about this, and said she had seen the actor in maybe seven or eight films (she was obviously a cinephile) but she hadn’t noticed this aspect of him, but believed he was right – the actor did have this quality. She was surprised he had seen it; seeing the actor only in a couple of things. As the rain grew stronger she looked across at him and asked where he was going. He had no plans he admitted: he had a book in his bag and a cafe in his mind. She said she would be happy to join him for a coffee if he would prefer to talk rather than read. He would love to he said, and off they went, with the rain still heavy and the umbrella they crowded under creating a necessary intimacy.

It was clear as she smoked several cigarettes in a row while drinking a cafe au lait (he ordered an Earl Grey that was lukewarm), Camille had something other than the topic of their conversation in her head, but it also looked like the topics they discussed (the film they saw, why he preferred books to films; why she thought film was the ultimate art form of visual representation), were more than mere distractions. It was as though she was engaged in the chat and then suddenly dislocated from it as other concerns crowded her mind. At a couple of moments it looked as though she wanted to talk about them but then thought again. After an hour and a half the rain had stopped and the sun started to come through the clouds. It was about seven in the evening; she asked if he wanted to walk for a while. He admitted he had nothing else to do, supposing that his trip to Paris was based on exactly that: on a freedom to go wherever he wished. He felt under no obligation except to get up in the morning and leave the flat that he had swapped for his own, while taking a ten day trip round a capital city he had read so much about and believed that merely wandering around it represented doing something. Is that what we mean by a great city: a place in which we can walk without any destination and feel like we are always going somewhere? Would someone go to Leeds, Dundee, Newcastle or Manchester and feel like they were experiencing the city? With Paris and Athens he never cared to see anything in particular: and liked to stumble upon things instead. The idea of coming across Notre Dame or the Pont neuf or the Pompidou centre without looking for them was a pleasure. To have sought them out would have undermined their presence somehow.

Camille asked him if there was anything he wanted to see; he said that he was happy just walking: they would no doubt view plenty simply by doing that. She said she didn’t know many British people but were they all as odd as he happened to be? She knew she was eccentric, but generally tried to hide it; he seemed to advertise his peculiarity in everything he would say. He insisted he was eccentric by British standards too, but maybe travelling allowed him to express it more openly than when he was at home. He wanted to add that perhaps meeting people with whom he believed he could be at home in his oddness was what allowed him to express it, but he chose, at that moment, to keep this to himself.

They walked from the cafe near the bottom of Rue st Jacques and along by the Seine and crossed the Pont Neuf, turning into Place Dauphine, which they slowly walked around before sitting on a bench for a while as she rolled and then smoked a cigarette. She had been smoking since she was fifteen she said; giving him the opportunity to ask how old she was by asking for how long had she been ingesting tobacco into her lungs. Thirteen years she said, which suggests, she added, that if someone is passable at arithmetic they’re entitled in a round about way to enquire into a woman’s age. She said this with a smile, and asked him more directly how old he happened to be. He told her he was thirty.

6

As they became close during the rest of his time in Paris, what he found so distinctive about her was not her beauty, but her obliviousness to it, her capacity to walk along a street and not see the looks she would receive. It was as though there was always a problem in her head or one they were talking about that would preoccupy her to the detriment of the social world. Yet she never dressed indifferently either, even if most of her clothes came from thrift shops and markets. She would often wear black dresses offset by other colours, a mauve scarf, lipstick, shoes or shawl; or the same items using red or green. He only once saw her wear jeans. He asked her whether she noticed men often looking at her and she said not really: she didn’t think she was very attractive at all, and anyway, didn’t much care for these superficial reactions from others. He recalled vaguely a quote about only shallow people judging by appearances, and she admitted that of course appearances matter, but not quite like that: not quite based on people looking at each other as if in some beauty contest. Yet if we look at each other she said because we are looking to see certain qualities manifest in the person in outer form then of course this makes sense.

This conversation took place a few days after they had met, after they had made love, and while they were sitting in a cafe in a part of the city that he liked but believed he would have been unlikely to have known if she hadn’t proposed the area to him. It was up along the Canal St Martin, not too far from Gare du nord, and there was a cafe that, like many of the best ones in Paris, weren’t so much refurbished, she said, as improved. They buy a new coffee machine, they get a new chef, they buy local produce. The chipped tiles remain, the tables and chairs are tatty and worn, but the place is very different. A couple of years ago she would come with friends and sit for a few hours and drink a coffee or a glass of wine but never order food. Once the owner came over to them, saying he couldn’t make much money out of people like them, but he was happy to have them there too. Why did they never order anything to eat? Camille explained exactly why, and the owner hired a proper chef and started going to the local market. Within a year it became a decent restaurant and not just a hang-out cafe. As she said this he noticed an odd expression on her face: as if she were talking about a past to which she no longer had access. She didn’t talk to him about it that day, but the night before he left, as he lay in bed with her and they watched the moon from her attic skylight, she admitted that he was the first person she had exchanged more than pleasantries with for a year.

7

She had been finishing her PhD on Film and the Redemption of Reality, and for some reason could not write it up. She had masses of notes, a clear structure written out, but somehow she couldn’t start writing. She would just accumulate more and more notes. She started to become scared of films, frightened of books: anything that alluded to her thesis created in her a feeling of anxiety. This then spread to her friendships, where even a comment about how she was getting on with her work created tension in her, and with her family, who lived in Normandy, whom she began to feel guilt towards since they had helped fund her PhD. She broke all contact with her friends, and told her family she couldn’t easily be in touch for a while. She told them one afternoon in the kitchen after she visited for the weekend. Her mother reacted angrily, but her father seemed to understand. He told her to take all the time she needed: he asked only that she send them the occasional postcard. They would need to know she was okay. It became one of the many rituals she had created for herself over the last year. Every other weekend she would send them a brief note, usually saying the same thing. “I am okay!!!” Don’t worry. Love, Camille.”

He asked her to tell him more about the rituals. She decided first of all to put the PhD aside and refused to work on it until she could feel again the enthusiasm she possessed when she started it. She also stopped reading, and stopped watching films. Since she wasn’t working any longer on her thesis she also refused any more help from her parents, and took a part-time job in a music shop. She could get by without much money because she was staying in her great aunt’s compact one bedroom flat (the very flat in which they were lying in bed). A couple of years ago her auntie moved back to Normandy, and let her stay in it: it had been rent controlled for decades and so the amount she paid was negligible. Her aunt had never married; never had children: she lived for her journalistic work and friendship.

Camille would work in the music shop from 9 to 1 four mornings a week. The shop was in the fourteenth arrondissement, and each day she would walk from the flat in Belleville to the shop. It would take her an hour at a brisk pace, so she would wake at about seven, have a tea and a bowl of cereal rather than a coffee and croissant, and listen to music. After work she would saunter slowly back, exploring parts of the city she had never been to before, saving money by drinking a coffee at the bar rather than on the terrace, and visiting museums and galleries where the entrance was free. She would look at the weekly listings in the magazine Pariscope and see there were numerous free events (concerts and exhibitions) she would go to, and for lunch would usually have a baguette and stuff a bit of cheese and some tomatoes into it.

After a few months the feelings of disquiet faded, though she still didn’t at all feel ready to start work again on her PhD. Instead she started taking photographs. She bought a digital camera from a market, and when she found herself thinking about something, instead of developing a thought about it, as she usually would, she took a photo. In the next six months or so she had taken thousands and thousands of photos and they were all stored on her computer. She had no wish to show them to anybody, and would probably one day erase the lot. They were taken she supposed not to produce anything, but to avoid a certain type of thinking. Even the few things she was telling him as they lay in bed she couldn’t have expressed a few months earlier. It was as though developing thoughts were frightening to her. She supposed this was partly why she stopped reading books and watching films: she couldn’t tolerate narrative. In fact, the day he saw her outside the cinema was the first time she had been in one since her crisis.

He asked her whether it was only the PhD that had brought it on. She supposed it was several other things too: she knew her parents would have liked her to get married and have kids, but she thought that an aspect of her personality would only want short term assignations. Whenever she had been with a boyfriend and thought of the long term a dread came over her: she could not imagine with pleasure a house, children, and family holidays. She could not think of old age and see a quiet retirement. Instead she would imagine a mortgage that would be hard to pay, responsibilities she could not meet, and old age looking after the other party attending to their ailments, or them attending to hers. The last film she saw before the crisis was called the Deep Blue Sea, about a young woman obsessed with a man about her own age. At the end of the film an old woman tells her that isn’t love: wiping someone’s backside when they are in no fit state to wipe their own; that is love. The line made her terrified. That the teleology of love, the direction of loving, was to end up wiping someone else’s bottom.

8

Of course he didn’t quite know how to receive this news. There he was lying in bed with someone who was expressing their fear of love: when she talked about her crisis that was one thing, but suddenly he felt incorporated within this terror, and wondered if he was there in her room, lying there like this, because she could not countenance a long-term and conventional relationship. He felt as though he had been picked up off the street, the most useful candidate to help her to return to health, without indicating he was anyone remotely worthy of her commitment. He thought about the times they had spent together and felt short changed: that they had been sharing a false emotional currency, and there was nothing that could be bought with it in the real world. Yet as she turned to kiss him he knew that her feelings contained a paradox: that she must have felt close to him to express her difficulties with closeness. Shortly afterwards, as she fell asleep initially in his arms and then later pulled herself away from him and turned in the other direction, he looked around the room, and thought about her flat. The bedroom they were in had space for the double bed, a desk, a few shelves of books above it, and a wardrobe. The sitting room was crammed with records, books and films, and had double doors of glass that led to a rectangular balcony big enough for a small table and two chairs. The kitchen had space for a table and a couple of chairs too. But it was the perfect space for one person, and he would ask her the next day whether her aunt had lived a solitary life not so much as an existential choice but a spatial one; as if her apartment was a gilded cage she had no wish to leave: that whenever she thought about a so-called better life, with a husband and children perhaps, it always seemed like a lesser existence.

Perhaps, she said to him the next morning, before afterwards falling back to sleep. He lay awake for a while thinking over what she had said, and was surprised when over breakfast, sitting outside on the balcony as the sun shone brilliantly upon them, she said that he was probably right. She even wondered if the flat was part of her own need to escape narrative: the flat was spatial after all rather than temporal. Maybe she was scared of relationships because they were nothing if not about time; they were narratives, demanding of change. As she took the empty muesli bowls into the kitchen, came back through with a treat for each of them (a couple of croissants she had picked up from the bakery before he re-awoke), so she said in her always good English that maybe we all don’t have too much time on our hands but in our minds. Modern western life is too full of narrative, she suspected, too full of ways in which we look at our lives moving forward. We are now constantly looking forward to things, she added, but how many of them do we enjoy. She said that one thing she now enjoyed was Earl Grey tea.

The next day he left Paris and never expected to see Camille again unless he happened once more to be in Paris and were to seek her out. Though when he waved back at her as he walked along the platform at Gare du nord the feeling of loss was greater than any other parting he could remember, it was oddly alleviated by a sense that he would know exactly where to find her: she might have made it clear to him that she had no interest in a relationship, but she also somehow created a feeling of security in her obstinacy. If they were to meet again, she said, let it be eccentric, unplanned, contingent. Let us not fall into easy narratives.

9

He thought a lot about Camille when he was back in Scotland, and a few weeks after he had returned he sent her a postcard thanking her for his stay. He had no email address for her, and put his own home address on the postcard and said perhaps she would like to visit some time. He did not hear back.

About two years afterwards he went to Granada. Now often in the hotel he would meet people he half-befriended; never going so far as to meet them for a drink outside the premises, but spending time in their company at work. One Spanish couple were there for four three nights and, each evening after they would come back from dinner, they sat with him for a couple of hours in the couch by the baywindowed foyer. On the third night before they went to bed, they both said he should come to Granada: it was a beautiful town, and their families were lucky enough to own several apartments in the city that they would rent out to visitors during the period. If he didn’t mind visiting out of season, he should come and stay. The place would be his for free.

The invite was offered in December, and he said he would like to come in March, sending them an email asking for the best dates, and also if it would be possible to invite a friend along also. They said any time up until early April would be fine. He booked his own flight, and sent another postcard to Camille. He didn’t really expect a reply, thinking it almost impossible that she would agree to see him in Granada, but a couple of days before going he received a postcard saying that she thanked him so kindly for the offer. As he had guessed, she was still at the same address. She said she wouldn’t be able to visit him there, but that she would sometimes think about him; if he were ever again in Paris he must call in on her. He was so happy to receive a reply that he wasn’t even disappointed that she had turned down his invitation. She had put her email address on the postcard.

It was with such a feeling of well-being that he arrived in Granada, taking a taxi from the airport to the flat in Sacromonte. Waiting there for him was the husband’s sister: the couple were themselves in Madrid and wouldn’t be back for several days. It was a concrete floored, high-ceilinged apartment that was surprisingly large, and hopelessly cold. Even in the evening it somehow seemed warmer outside than in, and he felt as if he were staying in a cave rather than an apartment. Indeed nearby there were many houses built into the caves, but this was a house probably built around eighty years ago, but without adequate insulation. After the first night he went into town and bought a small fan heater and promised himself he would insist on giving the family money for the electricity he would use, even if he felt bad knowing that to do so would indicate he had to buy a heater to keep the place warm.

He tried to use it as little as possible and for the first three days went out during the day and also for dinner in the evening. On the third evening, while eating a couscous dish, he looked across at someone who was also eating alone, also eating the same dish, and asked if she wanted him to join her at his table or if he could join her at hers. She said it is always nice not to eat alone, and as they sat, two strangers eating their dinner, she said company was probably the last thing she needed and the thing she most wanted. He replied that there seemed to be a story behind that and she concurred. But she wasn’t sure if he was the person to hear it. They talked for a while about other things, and then, shortly after they had finished their food, she asked if they could get the bill; she needed to get out of there. He insisted on paying, and said she could get him a drink. They walked over to Albaicin and round behind the Alhambra, coming back down one of the steep streets before taking a beer in a square in the town centre. She announced when they sat down he was good company. He told her he had hardly said a word and she replied: exactly. She said maybe she ought to rephrase it; that at certain moments good company knows when to talk, when to listen, when to be silent. Often people use the term good company as if the point is to entertain others, she thought, but there seemed to be those three elements: talking, listening and silence. She believed that if the two of them were to sit for the next hour, with her drinking her beer; him drinking his Earl Grey tea, without saying a word, or hardly anything at all, they probably wouldn’t be good company for each other. Somehow the silence was needed during the walk, but probably not now, just as the odd word while they ate seemed appropriate.

She realised she was beginning to sound like a conversational snob and quickly insisted that wasn’t so. She was just trying to offer a compliment and a bit of analysis. It interested her – conversation. She was trained in Sociolinguistics. She kept talking and he listened as she told him she was from New York, that she had been travelling with a boyfriend round Europe but they had split up three weeks earlier. She said she never really noticed before that he talked too much, listened too little, and didn’t at all trust silence. She had a boyfriend before, she said, but ,though he would talk very much, she never thought that he was doing so to fill the void, to eschew the dread of silence. No he talked because he always seemed to have something to say; when he didn’t he wished to be alone. He liked silence, but did not need to share it, and eventually they broke up because she didn’t quite trust his solitude: she couldn’t help but see it as a rejection of her. But her last boyfriend, no, he was frightened of silence, and so all she could see during their trip round France, Italy and Spain, was a man in his late twenties who couldn’t cope with his existence. She emphasised the word as if she had never used it before this trip, as though it happened to be a word which had no use or meaning to her back home, and he asked her what she meant by it. After all, he said, it might not be a word he would often use, but he was certain that his life was an existence; it wasn’t about being part of a society, it wasn’t based on a job, an education, even friends and family. No, an existence is whatever happens to be left over. Perhaps her recent boyfriend, he proposed, couldn’t accept silence because he couldn’t quite countenance existence. Her previous boyfriend couldn’t quite live because he was preoccupied by it, by needing to see his life as fundamentally solitary; a life people could only share on the basis of a prior solitude.

She said he was probably right, and perhaps might have stayed if she could have formulated his character as Martin had just done, but she left him of course, and did so for the very man she had finished with several weeks earlier. He didn’t know if he liked this woman who seemed so ruthless towards others, but Martin at least admired her willingness to talk about her brutal ability to end affairs with men whose way of being she couldn’t accept. Yet she also admitted, as they finished their drinks and walked back up to Sacromonte, where she said she was also staying, that she had loved the man whose solitude she couldn’t quite accept. She didn’t leave him because she didn’t care; she left feeling he could never share his life with anyone. As they walked up the steep, narrow streets towards his flat, he found the streets an impossible maze. It always took him much longer than it ought to have to find his way back. He usually made at least a couple of wrong turns. She didn’t seem to mind, and he found out why when they arrived at his place and she confessed that the hostel she was staying in was on the other side of the valley: over by the Alhambra. At first he wasn’t quite sure whether she simply wanted to take advantage of his hospitality (she had her rucksack with her and perhaps wanted to save a bit of money not booking in), or that she wanted to sleep with him. If it were the latter perhaps it was because she wanted to get the last boyfriend out of her mind by getting into someone else’s bed, or banish memories of the previous one. Whatever her motives he insisted on his own. He said that there was plenty space: she could easily stay if she wished. There was a bed settee in the living room.

She seemed happy enough with his proposal, and the next morning over breakfast she admitted that she might have used him. Her recent ex had emailed her the previous day saying that he would be coming to Granada: she didn’t want to risk him booking into the hostel she was staying in; didn’t want him to know which one it was. Martin still wasn’t sure what to make of her; she seemed far too direct for the manipulative person she half-presented herself as being. While she must have known coming back to his place might have meant that she expected him to make a pass at her, she appeared happy enough that he didn’t.

Later that afternoon they walked down to the river in front of the Alhambra and sat on the bank, taking in the sun, occasionally dipping into the shallow water. Carmen had stripped down to her bikini and he looked at her for the first time as she lay there with her eyes closed. It is as if he never quite felt he had the time to look at her until she settled into a moment of stillness. It wasn’t that she had talked so much in the restaurant, when they walked, at the bar, or over breakfast, but she possessed a way of appearing alert to someone’s gaze or its absence. At one moment the previous evening he momentarily watched a couple pass by and she asked if his attention was wandering, whether she was boring him. He felt he didn’t have the opportunity to reflect upon her without Carmen thinking that he was being absent-minded.

What did he see as he looked at her? She was not a beautiful woman as he remembered Camille being, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if she would have caught almost as many people’s attention. She had a toned and tanned body and a head ever so slightly large; it perhaps contributed to the impression that she was forward. She’d mentioned the previous evening that her name was from her grandmother, who had emigrated to the States from Spain after the civil war. She was American in personality, she said, but Spanish in her sensibility. She didn’t feel so much at home in Spain as Spain felt at home in her.

She stayed in Granada for almost as long as he had the place, and though she slept on the couch for another couple of nights, after that he suggested they share the bed. It was the day after they had first had sex that they were walking along by Rio Darro when she saw coming towards them the ex she had tried to avoid. Martin and Carmen quickly went up a side street and waited for him to pass. He was not alone, and after he passed Carmen was intrigued by who he happened to be with. They followed them along the road as the ex and his companion walked to the end of the street before turning up to Sacromonte. They stayed about a hundred yards behind them, far enough away to remain at a distance; close enough to see that Carmen’s ex had started an assignation of his own as they held hands and started to kiss.

On witnessing this sign of affection she turned to kiss Martin with a force indicating an affection so misdirected that she couldn’t even claim it was directed at her recent ex, who couldn’t even see what she was doing, but Martin knew of course that it was hardly affection towards him. They went into an alleyway, and while she went down on him he felt a strange elation as if he didn’t at that moment exist. He was a machine receiving pleasure. It was only later, when they carried on up to his flat, that he could reflect on a sexual experience that was probably unforgettable, and yet could have happened to anyone.

After they ate dinner at his place, Carmen said that she would be leaving the next morning. She didn’t like the idea of seeing her ex with his new girlfriend, and that evening they didn’t have sex. Instead they talked through the night before she got up at six to catch a bus shortly after seven. She discussed again her solitary ex-boyfriend that she left believing that he was so self-contained that she thought there was nothing she could do to make him need her. Yet she wasn’t so sure if in leaving him she was testing him: trying to find out if he did care. When she left she realised he did, but even then his way of showing it suggested a resilience of self greater than love for her. So she stayed with this new man, the one they saw earlier that day. She wondered if she would ever get over that earlier boyfriend, wondering whether there are certain people whose perspective we can never find in another person, so our own way of looking at the world keeps conjoining with theirs.

He couldn’t pretend to understand entirely what she was saying, but he thought he saw in her a weakness of character that had been given strength through that earlier relationship, and she was looking in other men to have it replicated. Yet he felt he gave her little except a body to lie next to and an ear into which she could talk. When she got a taxi the next morning he felt relief that she was gone. They swapped email addresses, but as she gave him hers he knew he would not have been surprised if they hadn’t remained in contact.

10

Over the following three years he didn’t travel abroad at all, but he thought a lot about his trips in Athens, Paris and Granada. It wasn’t as though he only thought of the women he had met there; more that he had accessed feelings that he believed would have been difficult to find had he not found a woman in each city, and feelings he thought he might not have accessed had he seen the women in Edinburgh. Yet of the three his thoughts would return most to Camille, as if there was a quality to her that went beyond the place in which he found her. He thought that if she were in Edinburgh she would augment the city, where when he thought of Penny or Carmen he seemed incapable of thinking of them outside the environments in which he found them.

While he would hear occasionally from Penny and Carmen, he almost never heard from Camille, and yet he was sure that of the three, the one who would think of him the most was her, if for no other reason than that he believed her to be easily the most thoughtful. Whenever he was in contact with Penny or Carmen they would reply promptly, with Penny now in London saying one day she would have to come and visit him in Edinburgh, and Carmen saying that he should come to New York. Emails from Camille were very erratic and had no cause and effect. He might write to her and he would hear nothing back, until more than a month later he would receive a long email detailing her feelings about a book or about a film. She would end by asking him to write to her at length if he had time, as if to say she had no interest in a few words, but wanted nothing less than a revelation.

He was thinking of Camille that morning when the waitress told him about the other Earl Grey drinker, and when he finished his tea and the waitress came over to take away the teapot, the cup and the saucer, he asked her if she could say a little bit about the other person who liked weak Earl Grey. She said that she hadn’t seen the person herself; it was just when she made the request back at the counter someone said: is that for the regular or for the newcomer? He said he was intrigued who this newcomer might be, and she smiled.

11

The following few days he went to the same cafe hoping to come across this other Earl Grey drinker, but oddly he didn’t ask anyone at the counter who this person happened to be. It was as if he believed it might be Camille, and thought that by enquiring about her he would be breaking the rules of the game. And then about a week later he did see her, but not in the cafe he happened to be in, but walking around George Square, by the university and near the cafe where he would regularly have his tea. He followed her as she went into the library, but of course had to stop at the entrance since he wasn’t a student and had no access to the facilities. He didn’t see her again for the next few days and started wondering whether it was really her, and how absurd it was that he found he couldn’t send a simple email to find out.

What he instead decided to do was to tell the waitress in the cafe that the next time she saw the other weak Earl Grey drinker that he would meet her outside the library entrance at four in the afternoon on Friday. She promised that the message would be passed on. This was on the Monday, and by the time Friday came, he was standing outside the library almost shaking with expectation. As he looked from left to right he missed her as she came out of the library and jabbed his arm with a half punch. He kissed her on the lips, and she responded, before pulling away, saying that she supposed she should have told him she was coming over, that she managed to secure funding for a post-doctorate. Yet she he had no idea where he happened to be in his life; she didn’t want to intrude upon it. If they met; they would meet, she shrugged. She said it as though with indifference but the way her pupils dilated, the firmness of the hug, the spontaneousness of the kiss, suggested she had thought a lot about seeing him, and he couldn’t believe that they had both walked away from that Parisian encounter so easily. How could they more than five years before had feelings like the ones they were then expressing without acting upon them, finding a way to secure them?

He asked her this that evening over dinner in an Indian cafe on Nicolson Street. As she sat there insisting he try her dish and then taking the opportunity to feed him, so she said when they met it was the first time in more than a year that she believed she could talk to anyone. But she also didn’t want to make any plans, anything that suggested a story, a goal, a move forward. To have started a long-distance relationship would have been full of logistics: flights to book, times to arrange, places to visit. It all seemed so exhausting, though she would of course sometimes think about proposing it. But instead her well-being lay in sometimes thinking about him, and when she would send those long emails, they were often the result of conversations she had been having with him in her head.

He wanted to ask her if there had been other men during this time, but he knew the answer he would get would be irrelevant: all he needed to know was that she had been thinking of him often and deeply, just as he had been thinking about her. She might not have at all been reliable in her emailing, but he believed there had been a certain reliability in her feelings. It was as though she would write to him when she couldn’t express certain thoughts to anybody else, and so he asked her about this. As they sat on the grass in the park a few yards from the library, on this surprisingly warm late September afternoon, she said that yes, he was the only person who could have received the emails she sent. Sometimes, she added, you are thinking about a conversation you were having with someone and you know it could only be one of a small number: it might be on a book or a film, a song you like or a political idea you were expressing. And then sometimes there are the conversations you have and you know you couldn’t have them with anyone else. You express a thought that seemed so private and personal you know exactly who you had the conversation with. That was the way she had felt with all their chats, with all their email exchanges.

She asked him if he felt the same, and asked it with such a beseeching tone it was as though she was asking him if he loved her. Perhaps she was. He replied he did; but admitted he couldn’t quite understand something about her unreliability, some aspect of her unwillingness to be in regular contact, and of course, he said laughing, why the heck she didn’t email him saying she was coming to Edinburgh. He laughed again saying of course he knew; wasn’t that partly what they had talked about in Paris? And yet it wasn’t easy for him waiting for a reply. She said however odd it may sound that she was much more reliable with other people than she had ever been with him; that as he knew she would contact her parents regularly even when she hadn’t really wanted to communicate with anyone. But he was also the only person with whom she had talked about her retreat from narrative, from seeing her life as a story that was being told. She thought in telling him this he understood that she didn’t need to be consistent, didn’t have to present herself as someone with a clear future, with defined goals. To have sent him an email saying she had received post doc funding would have been part of that self she had faked for everyone else. He had always received from her a truth greater than the social conventions.

Of course he could have laughed harder still, saw in front of him a beautiful woman who could make an excuse for anything. But he knew that here was someone who, when they had met years earlier in Paris, had chosen to express and explore feelings with him that she hadn’t managed to do with anyone else during her year of retreat, and it was perhaps meeting someone who met her vulnerability that had created the bond. After all, hadn’t he spent most of his life in this precarious place between the social and the personal, between trying to remain sheltered from the social world while still accepting he had to live in it? We are all making decisions about how to live, but some are doing so more personally, more precariously and more subtly than others it would seem. She asked him whether someone called Earl Grey existed, and he said he had indeed; despite the aristocratic background he was a figure of importance in 19th century Social Reform. Depending on which source you accessed, it was said that a key bill of 1832 that he supported doubled the number of people who had the opportunity to vote. Since Grey was a social reformer, you could say ordering an Earl Grey could be seen as a political act. It was her turn to laugh, and he added that perhaps one day they could go to Newcastle and pay homage to him: the city had a large statue of the man. Perhaps, she said, refusing to let go of the idea that she couldn’t possibly plan anything.

Instead she said they should go and get an Earl Grey now, to pop along to the cafe where he happened to be a regular (and where of course she had spotted him drinking his weak Earl Grey a couple of weeks earlier). Why not he replied and off they went.

It was still warm enough for them to sit outside, even if the late afternoon sun had disappeared between the block of concrete flats that were situated on top of the cafe. The tea arrived and they both at the same time removed the strainer and sat there chatting like they had known each other for years, and they supposed they had. Yet it must have looked to the waitress , who had told him about this other weak Earl Grey drinker, that they surely knew each other hardly at all. As she passed to pick up cups and dishes from a nearby table she looked across at them, and he didn’t know exactly how to place that look: whether it was surprise, dismay, envy or happiness, but he assumed that she thought that somehow the issue of drinking weak tea had brought them together. Perhaps it had.

©Tony McKibbin