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Grey Eminence


A friend recently wondered what it might be like being grey without eminence. Several years ago this friend of mine, a while after he split up with his wife in Edinburgh, moved back to Paris, where he was from, taking a job he didn’t especially want to do in a place he didn’t really want to return to: Paris was home, but it was also a city he knew he had often been squashed and intimidated by. He left after doing a degree at one of the Grandes ecoles, exclusive schools where it wasn’t uncommon for people to devote more than a year or two of their lives preparing for the entrance exam. Jean-Pierre got his degree, but didn’t sit the test to become a university teacher, instead leaving the country and coming to Britain. I remember he would say to me whenever he would return to Paris he would feel the pressure of that competitive environment, and whenever he wandered round the fifth arrondissement, where the school was located, he would start to have a thumping headache. Luckily, the job was near the Eiffel tower, on the other side of the Seine. The new job was working in EU publications; the old job had been working as an editor for a publishing firm in Edinburgh.

He missed the comfort of his ex-wife, who was Scottish, but much more the presence of his two children, with the oldest at university in the city and the youngest soon to leave school. He would see them every few months when he returned to the Scottish capital and would stay at a friend’s place, or sometimes at his wife’s. They still loved each other he would sometimes say and I had always thought; but they were perhaps two people who had put so much of their love into their children and not enough into each other. They were both now forty five, and he once jokingly said to me that when he looked at his children and then peered in the mirror or at his ex, it was if the children were vampires: draining himself and his wife of all their colour and giving themselves fresh complexions, clear eyes and thick, healthy hair. Sometimes Jean-Pierre couldn’t help but feel that when he and his ex-wife would meet it was if they were visiting each other’s graves. I told him that they both still looked great, but it was his way of expressing a feeling by exaggeration.

He offered the observation a while ago when he returned to the city for his younger son’s eighteenth birthday, and he was staying in my flat behind Arthur’s Seat. He compared his own compact apartment in Paris and the small house he still partly owned with his ex to my own sprawl, and admitted he envied my life but couldn’t pretend it was a rational decision: he had never for one moment regretted having kids, and couldn’t quite understand people like me who had never had them. But Jean-Pierre did admit that he had two regrets in life. One concerned work, and the other women. He wished he had been more ambitious when he was younger, wished that when he finished his degree he hadn’t been quite so irritated by many of the people attending the course that he wanted to live somewhere far away from any of them. He chose to do a Master’s at Stirling, in Scottish literature, and he didn’t return to live in France until he got the job in Paris working for the European community. What did he do in those twenty years? He continued studying at Stirling and did his PhD on Alasdair Gray, then decided he wanted stay in Scotland, but couldn’t find an academic post so got a job working for a publishing company in Edinburgh. Initially he felt safer than he ever had: far away from France geographically and emotionally, no longer at all reliant on his parents to help him out financially, and with no threat of needing to return. Within six months in the job he was given a permanent contract, and around the same time he met his wife, who worked in the same company, and he was now, he felt, as much Scottish as French. His English was better than most locals despite an accent that wouldn’t quite go away, and an accent he maybe held on to so that he wouldn’t be taken for a local. He may have disliked Paris, but he still liked being French, and more especially Franco-Scottish. At the publishing house he was even responsible for publishing a book of idioms, and perhaps knew how to string meaninglessly meaningful English sentences together better than anyone I knew. Sometimes we would have entire conversations in idiomatic language, but he would always win as I would run out of idiomatic phrases before he would.

Jean-Pierre and I first met at a party during the yearly arts festival, hosted by the listings magazine where I would often work as a photographer. They paid lousily but luckily I taught at a local college as well, so ends were always met. It would have been about nine years ago and Jean-Pierre was looking for a place to stay. The marriage was over and at that moment only acrimoniousness was left. Or at least that is how he couched it when a few weeks later he moved into my place. But at that moment there was bitterness in his voice and a pained expression on his face, as he knew that he would not be saying goodnight to his children every evening. Yet as I said, when we met up recently, he had only two regrets, and I knew one of them didn’t have anything to do with the children. He always thought moving out of the family home was best for all of them, and especially the two children who did not have any longer to hear their parents arguing.  It was during that recent conversation where he offered the lack of ambition as the first of his regrets. I asked him to tell me more as we sat drinking a bottle of wine in my flat, and he said that maybe if he were teaching in a good university like many of the people with whom he went to university with, he wouldn’t feel so isolated, and he would feel his family would give him credence not simply for supporting them (which he had always done), but for having a life of purpose and meaning beyond them also. He could see on their faces the last time he left Edinburgh a few months before that they felt vaguely sorry for him, aware that he would be going to a flat alone, while they would be together in the family home.

But then he looked around my own flat, and wondered how many nights had I spent alone there. It was a large flat and unusually shaped. In fact it wasn’t a flat at all, but a converted shop, with an open plan basement and a mezzanine on the ground floor where the front door was. The ground floor was one large space that I used as a screening room and social area, and would occasionally host mini-lectures there. The basement had a kitchen with a dining room, and three rooms off it: a bathroom, a bedroom and a photographic dark room that I would still occasionally use for photos when I worked on film. Jean-Pierre and I were sitting on a small table on the ground floor, looking out the window where we could see Arthur’s seat. He asked me if I were ever lonely, and I said not often, but sometimes very deeply so, and especially when I would break up with someone and I would feel their absence everywhere. The flat was always too big for one, but when I was used to being alone it seemed to fill up nicely with my own activity, but when I was not, when someone had left me, when someone had once again said that they wanted different things in life from me, then I would feel a loneliness that no doubt took me back to my own parents’ death when I was nine.

Jean-Pierre knew I’d never talked about it, always assumed I never wanted to, he said, but I told him that I never did so because it was rare for people to ask; the only people who consistently did were women with whom I would have relationships. Friends knew so little about my past, yet knew so much of my life, since I had numerous friends going back fifteen years, but the girlfriends, who were rarely around for more than a year and with whom I never kept in touch afterwards, knew little of my adult life in terms of knowing me, but a lot of my past existence through the questions they asked. It seemed odd Jean-Pierre asking me, yet it meant that perhaps for the first time in many years I could explore the subject without feeling somehow, somewhere, that I was sitting an emotional test.

I told him that when I was nine my parents and I were on holiday in the south of France, on the road between Toulon and Nice, when my father took a corner too fast and the car crashed into a jutting rock.  My parents were in the front and died instantly, and I was in the back briefly unconscious, but awake by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital. I remember screaming for my parents, lost in this language people were speaking that I didn’t understand, and then after that, early the following afternoon, my maternal grandparents were with me. For the next eight years of my life I lived with them, I explained to Jean-Pierre, and though they were people I liked, admired and respected, I could never quite get out of my mind that it was if I were suddenly so much closer to death. It wasn’t only that my parents had died, it was also that, unlike the other children at the school I went to, the people who came to see me on parents’ day were old and grey, as if death had walked into the room.

We talked a bit more about my life with my grandparents, and then Jean-Pierre said my comment about death walking into the room reminded him of how he felt so often when he now walked into one. He explained that a few weeks before he went for a night out with his work colleagues and most were men and a couple of women around his own age except for one woman in her mid-to-late twenties who was working in an office upstairs from him.  As he walked through the door of the Irish pub they had all agreed to meet up in, he saw what looked like a moment of Technicolor amongst monochrome, and felt that he would add nothing to the colour of the evening. Over the next three hours they all sat and talked and listened to a couple of Irish bands that were playing, and all the while Jean-Pierre wondered why she was still there. Didn’t she have other places to go, other Technicolor worlds in which she would fit much more suitably? As he watched the other men sit around clinging to her every word as if each syllable were her body, as they would have liked nothing more than to take her home and make love to her, so he saw the two women around his own age looking on, fellow monochromes for whom none of the other men seemed at all interested in finding out what words might trip off their tongue.  He wanted to go over to talk to them, but he also wanted to be near the rays of light that emanated from this warm sun, this youthful beauty.

He admitted his words were purple, his tone exaggerated, but that evening he had never felt so old, so obsolete, so without point and purpose. He was reduced to being part of an audience, knowing that he would never be allowed on the stage, let alone get the chance to play King Lear. He laughed at the pun on leer, and added that language was about the only thing he got a chance to play around with now.  I said perhaps I felt obsolete too, but admittedly in a very different way. Every woman who left me, left me feeling inadequate, somehow useless, and they did so not because they were selfish, demanding or avaricious, but because they wanted entirely understandable things from someone they were trying to love. They wanted the possibility of a home together, they wanted maybe to have children, and they wanted to feel secure. My apartment was roomy but the opposite of a family home. The basement had hardly any windows and only small ones at that. The stairs were precarious for small children, and the shop front windows on the ground floor easy to break and the flat thus easy to break into. If I were to settle down with anyone I would have probably needed to sell up and move elsewhere. I might also have to consider offering mainstream papers and journals more work despite disagreeing with their ideological stance and how they would use the photos I sent them. When the last woman I was with left, she did so insisting that I wouldn’t compromise; yet would compromise have been the right word? I knew Isabelle wanted us to share a place together, and maybe have a family, but these were things she wanted with someone before she met me, and so they were not even compromises for her but ambitions. As they were things I didn’t especially want they didn’t feel like compromises either, but capitulations. As I said to her as we split up: her ambition would be my capitulation. She would get what she wanted, and I would be given what I didn’t want. Where was the compromise in that?

Jean-Pierre smiled and said that I would play with language too, but with a bit more purpose. I looked at him quizzically and he said where he played with language in his head to muse over his impossible situation, I did so to create concepts I could live by. I said I wasn’t quite so sure. Isabelle had left several months earlier, and we had been together for a year, and the break had been harder than most partly through feelings of guilt. Isabelle was thirty seven and wanted children, and had wasted a year of her life with someone who had no intention of having any. I joked that one can be obsolete before the event; not only after it.

There were only five years between us, but it was as though Jean-Pierre was trapped in feeling old, and I was trapped in feeling young, but were we both not trapped? It was the case my hair was still dark, and that I looked younger than I happened to be, but that youthfulness, such as it was, carried with it the awareness that I had never cared for another more than I had cared for myself, nor ever dissolved into another person as Isabelle proposed shortly before we split-up. Make your own happiness depend on another, a philosopher once said, but whose happiness had I prioritised over my own? Jean-Pierre had often told me that children create a sense of perspective; giving your own life meaning on the one hand but make others’ lives more important than your own on the other.

It is as if I wanted merely to make my life important, and yet I couldn’t quite disentangle these feelings of guilt, responsibility, loneliness, immaturity and mortality, from those of empowerment, individuality, freedom, creativity. The latter were behind the values that I had been living by for more than fifteen years, but were they no longer valid; that I had to accept the values of the social far more than I had hitherto been willing to do?

But, after Jean-Pierre went back to Paris, I thought that he was as unhappy as I happened to be; only for very different reasons. It was surely the unhappiness that was the problem, not the life chosen in and of itself. Perhaps, though, if we could have temporarily swapped lives, with Jean Pierre less grey and looking younger, and I having two children whose upkeep I had been responsible for, we both would have been happy. However, while organ transplants are one thing, life transplants have not yet come to pass, and it was a few days after Jean-Pierre left that somebody came into my life that might usefully have come into Jean-Pierre’s.

An acquaintance phoned and wondered if I would like to do a two day photo-shoot for a fashion show at the art college. It will be funky, he said, full of creativity and vitality, he insisted, and I replied why not. Each year the college put on a fashion show made up of the clothes the design students had created over the preceding few months. Most of the models were young students, but a couple were older, and one of whom must have been early thirties and not to so many years younger than I was. She carried herself differently from any of the others, and seemed neither to take the show too seriously as some of the students did, as they anxiously fretted over how they looked and whether the design brought out their best aspects, nor so casually that the tutors had to hurry her back from fag breaks or smooching with a boyfriend.

After the show, at the end of the second day, there was a reception, and during it she came over to me and said that she hoped that I didn’t use photo-shop; that being touched up in a photo wasn’t so very different from somebody touching you up in life. She laughed loudly, perhaps a little madly, and I said I was a discreet gentleman who kept his hands off the merchandise.  If I didn’t she said she would have to photo-shop me to the police. There was something strange in this banter, as if it weren’t the double entendre of seduction, but that of friends well acquainted with each other and who shared a love for the pun. I felt not like someone in the middle of a flirtation, but one caught in another’s preoccupation with themselves in the world.

Yet the previous evening when I had been looking through photos of the first day of the shoot, I dawdled over her pictures more than those of anybody else, and it wasn’t that she was more beautiful than some of the younger models, nor even that, because she was older, she had a story to tell; it was more especially that she couldn’t stop, I sensed, telling it. Her whole attitude and behaviour was symptomatic; but of what exactly? As we talked for half an hour I sensed she was somebody who could have walked off at any moment and started a chat with anyone else, so arbitrary was the way she entered into the discussion with me, so full of non-sequiturs was her conversation. But our chat was halted instead by one of the tutors shouting loudly that time was up and everybody should make their way towards the exit. She announced that she could do with another drink, though actually she had been drinking water whilst talking with me, and asked if I wanted to go for one somewhere near. I said why not.

Her name was Samantha, she said, and I had noted her accent was from somewhere in the north of Scotland. It transpired she was from the Shetland Islands, and helped explain maybe why she came across as overly familiar. She knew everybody there and wanted to know everyone here in Edinburgh as well: it was her way of making her world feel safe.  As we sat at the table of a pub near the art college called the Blue Blazer, I asked her how long she had been in Edinburgh and she said three years. Before that she had lived most of her life in the Shetlands. She had been born in London, but when she was five her parents moved up: her father worked in oil. I didn’t know the island at all, but I had been a couple of times to Skye, and knew that was isolated enough, even though it was now more or less attached to the mainland, thanks to a bridge.  I said she seemed too wise to have spent so much of her life in so small a place, and she quickly replied saying that would suggest anybody living in a city bigger than Edinburgh was much wiser than she was.

I saw her point and said I was probably just making conversation, and that is maybe from whence most of our stupidities come: not really from us, but from the social conventions that insist we should say something. She said that she always found it funny that idiom is a word so close to idiot, and that most of them, most idioms, were meaningless, and made us meaningless in the process. I said I knew a friend who had written a book on them, and she said that I should give him a ring: maybe he would like a drink too. I said he was in Paris. She said that was a pity, since the last flight is probably soon leaving. She spoke as if constantly trying to provoke, and happened to be one of those people for whom language is a means of expression within poverty. If she had been wealthy she probably would have had her own jet and we would be off to visit Jean-Pierre that very evening. But instead she had to settle for the adventurousness of language, and I found myself seeing in her a few similarities with Jean-Pierre.

I discovered the reason she had stayed in the Shetlands so long was because she had a son, and she wanted him to finish primary school on the island before they moved south. She was young and foolish and too easily seduced by an oil-worker, but at least he bought her off with enough money for her life to be less awful than many a single mum, and she was also strangely happy that she had David all to herself.  Throughout the conversation at the reception and the pub she had never once asked me a question about my own life, and then all of a sudden asked about six in a row. Was I married? Did I have kids? Could I make a decent living as a photographer; had I always lived in Edinburgh? Nobody had ever fired so many essential questions at me all at once, and I felt a strange hollowness in the weakness of my answers. We parted after an hour and a half, with Samantha saying she had to relieve the baby sitter of her duties, and asked if we could swap mobile numbers. I accepted, though didn’t expect her to phone, and had no intention of phoning her.

Several weeks later, though, I received a text saying that friends of hers were having a party at the weekend and did I want to come.  Jean-Pierre was back in Edinburgh that weekend: there was a conference on that was relevant to his work and a number of his work colleagues were attending also. He said he might need to spend a couple of nights at mine if that was okay. I said of course, and, after Samantha’s text, I sent him an email asking if he wanted to come along to a party, on the Saturday night. He wrote a longish email back saying that what he hadn’t mentioned on the phone was that amongst the  work mates attending would be the young woman whom he so liked from the office upstairs. He would like to come to the party, but he had to admit that if there happened to be a chance of going for dinner with his colleagues, then that would be paramount. I had to admit too that I would have quite liked to have gone for dinner with Jean-Pierre and his colleagues also, so as to see this young woman who had so forced upon Jean-Pierre a mild mid-life crisis. But nevertheless I texted Samantha back saying that I would come, and asked also if it was possible if I might bring a friend. She texted back saying I could bring as many as I wanted as long as we took plenty of alcohol: it was taking place in a student flat shared by six people: the place was huge.

The Friday evening Jean-Pierre stayed at mine, and we talked a little more about some of the things we had discussed during his previous visit. I asked him if he felt any more resolved over the young woman, and he said he supposed he did. This didn’t mean if they were all going to dinner the following evening he wouldn’t go, but he could see also that she was a symptom of his own fret over aging more than an especially beautiful and interesting woman. She might well be both of these things, but maybe only to him given the specific circumstances in which he found himself, as he gave another example of a night out his colleagues had. Again Bridget came, for that was her name, and again he was bewitched along with the others. But after an hour a couple of her friends arrived to join them, and they stayed for half an hour before the three of them went off to a party. As Jean-Pierre looked from one face to the next he saw a certain uniformity of appearance that dissipated quite strangely and suddenly his liking for Bridget, as he realised if either of the two friends were working in the office he would probably have felt exactly the same for them as for her.

He had told me years before that he had been in love three times in his life, and he said again that night as we talked that each time he knew that the person was singular: that she could not be as readily replaced as he felt Bridget could have been then. He knew for example that when he met his wife that he could have been with her for the rest of his days; a feeling that could not be explained and didn’t need to be. As they talked and talked, as they kept finding new ways to look at things and each other, he knew he could be with her for years. He had also felt that about someone he met when he was sixteen, and another woman, whom he had never talked to me about and perhaps still didn’t quite feel he ought to since it meant revealing secrets that were not his alone.  This was not at all the feeling he had with Bridget.

The next evening, around six, Jean-Pierre rang saying a few of them were going to go for dinner and would I like to join them. I asked what time they were eating – he said seven – and I replied that would be fine since I intended to go the party around ten. Perhaps one or two of them would like to join me.  As I arrived at the Indian restaurant on Forest Road near the top of the Meadows, I realised why I had never been there before. Its rich red interiors, and its reddish lighting, seemed infernal, a space hardly conducive to seeing your food, let alone enjoying it. Nevertheless it was busy, and took me a few moments to locate the table where Jean-Pierre was sitting with the others. There were five of them, and while I immediately went over and said hello to Jean-Pierre, it was to what could only have been Bridget that my eyes were drawn. It wasn’t just that she was dressed in colours that matched the restaurant’s interior, it was still more the skin tone: a pale shine that justified like nobody else I had ever met the term alabaster. With her black hair and red clothes, and the way the light played off her skin she seemed not only beautiful but strangely rich in colour. Would I have felt such a strong attraction towards her I would sometimes wonder afterwards were it not for the colour scheme that matched her look so completely?

She was, without a doubt, as far away from the greyness Jean-Pierre feared as one could be, and I could understand instantly his projection onto her. But as I sat down and glanced across at her several times before we started talking, it wasn’t this colourfulness that attracted me to her, but instead, or rather chiefly, a look of quiet enquiry, as if she wanted to gravitate towards the most meaningful situation she could find.

When we started talking we couldn’t readily stop, and when it came to the party I asked if she and the others wanted to come also.  Throughout the time in the restaurant I never once looked across at Jean-Pierre, and when I offered the invite I looked along the table and noticed his look wasn’t at all that of envy and betrayal, but more like one I would sometimes see him offer his children; the look of someone who knew more than they did, and looked forward to watching them learn about life in their own manner.

I could have said it was a look I reversed an hour later at the party, when I saw Jean-Pierre speaking intently to Samantha. As I passed them to pick up more drinks from the kitchen, I heard them speaking about kids, and when I returned I smiled discreetly and went again to sit next to Bridget. At that moment of course I had no idea whether Bridget and I would part at the end of the evening, spend it together, or be with each other for months, perhaps years. Equally I did not know whether the chat Jean-Pierre and Samantha were in the midst of was simply a discussion of least resistance as they talked of their children, or a meaningful encounter that would continue into the night and beyond. But at that moment as I sat on the couch happily squashed next to Bridget with another three people sharing the space, I felt an unusual sense of well-being that seemed to give feeling to the thought that maybe people, in a certain way, can swap lives after all. I believed at that moment in a sense of perspective that some might even call eminence grise.


©Tony McKibbin