I was sitting about five rows from the back in the cinema watching a film where I couldn’t stop laughing, and the only person who seemed to find it equally amusing was a woman in a row behind me. As the film explored in its offbeat way how an actor is hired to play the role of the big boss because the boss is too shy and too keen to be loved by his staff to admit he is the boss himself, so I felt that I and this young woman were creating an interesting private space to the detriment of the forty or so po-faced viewers seated around us. On a couple of occasions I tried inconspicuously to see who it was who was laughing, and peripherally guessed that she was near enough to my own age – perhaps late twenties – and with long, dark hair and a relaxed, informal approach to her own body: she at one moment allowed one of her legs to flop over the chair in front of her, about three chairs along from where I was sitting. But beyond that I couldn’t say what she looked like: it was one of the few occasions in my life where I really wished I had eyes in the back of my head. Especially when after the film finished she disappeared promptly as the credits came up as if she had to go somewhere in a hurry. I surmised it was probably to catch a bus: the screening didn’t start till a quarter to ten, and I supposed many last buses were before eleven thirty.
Over the next couple of weeks I recommended the film to a handful of friends: it was showing for a week in the Filmhouse, and then for another week at the Cameo cinema farther along the road here in Edinburgh. Interestingly not one of them found it funny, and so even people with whom I in many ways felt close, and with whom I thought I shared a very similar sense of humour, found the film tiresome, a gag too obviously drawn out. I was curiously alienated by their responses, and perhaps thus possessed an especially strong yearning to find out who that woman sitting behind me in the cinema happened to be.
Maybe the reason why I credited this young woman’s laugh with so much meaning lay in my own life’s general absence of it. That may well be an exaggeration; yet here I was in my early thirties with all my friends in the city where they had gone to university having either moved away or showing signs of settling down. Would they five years before have found the film funny? Maybe one reason they didn’t find it engaging was that it was too slight a film, too apparently unwilling to tell them deeper truths about their lives. This isn’t to say they had lost their sense of humour; more that their limited amount of free time meant that the cinema should be a hefty experience: either loaded with issues or at the other extreme with special effects. It needed to be cinematic. The film I recommended was of course very filmic indeed, but not in the way that they would now define it. Cinema was something so different from television that it could justify a trip back out after getting home from work: the film they had seen could, visually, have been watched on television, and most said they thought it was a poor companion piece to The Office.
This is not a work of criticism, it is a story, and my qualifications for discussing the film as a work of cinema would be woefully inadequate anyway. I am an anthropologist by education, and a video shop assistant by profession. This obviously means I have watched a lot of films, but not in a way that would make me feel comfortable passing a keen eye over any of them except with the most personal response. In this instance the personal response can be more fruitfully explored through the experience of the film over its formal content.
As I’ve said, I found it funny at numerous moments, and almost everything I found amusing the young woman behind me had found funny also. As I talked to various friends about why they hadn’t responded to the film, so also did I want more and more to talk to this person who obviously had. As I read reviews of the film, as I looked online for some interviews with the director, I still wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t that the reviews were bad, it wasn’t that the director was inarticulate about his own work; no it was that I needed a counter-response to the friends who thought so little of it; a counter response that could emotionally assuage me.
It would have been about three weeks later at work that I noticed four of the director’s other films had been taken out at once, and so I looked into the system to see who had hired them. I read that it was a woman called Alicia Petterson. She was 26, and a student. I looked at her picture and though it was shot against the light with the computer camera, I could see that she was as pleasant looking as I perceived her to be when sitting behind me in the cinema. Yet was it her? For that I needed not a face, of course, but a laugh. I looked to see when the films were due back and noticed it was the following day: I would again be working. Yet it was later that evening when the DVDs were returned, and they were returned not by Alicia Peterson, but by someone who said they were Alicia’s flatmate: he was returning them for her.
I was not especially deflated – wouldn’t she be renting more films? Over the next week or two I waited expectantly to see if the person whom I believed was responsible for the laugh would turn up, yet she never did. I checked to see if she had rented any more films and noticed that she hadn’t.
Maybe a couple of weeks after that, when I was sitting in a bar with a friend whom I increasingly felt I had nothing in common, I heard this laugh, a laugh resembling the one I’d heard behind me in the cinema. I looked across and saw it was emanating from the very person I’d seen on the computer at work: it was Alicia Peterson. She was sitting with two female friends and, as my own friend looked at his watch and said he ought to be going, I said I would stay for one more pint and read my book. He looked at me as though I was becoming an increasingly strange man, and yet he didn’t know the half it: it was of course merely a precursor to find out more about the woman sitting nearby. I sat for about forty five minutes reading before getting up to leave, unable to find a way in which I could have instigated a conversation with someone who was sitting enjoying herself with two friends. I didn’t even curse myself for my cowardice: it simply didn’t feel like a reasonable thing to do in the circumstances. My friends – or increasingly what felt like mere acquaintances – might have thought I was becoming strange, but their notion of strangeness was social; mine was I believed more personal. This meant that while I would have no problem sitting alone in a café or a bar reading, I wouldn’t go so far as to talk unannounced to a stranger in the café or bar if they seemed engaged in conversation with others. I would sometimes watch other people in cafes who seemed lonely, who were attentive to the slightest hint of eye contact, and yet barely at all attentive to another’s boredom threshold when they had trapped them in conversation. There was, I reckoned, aloneness and loneliness: I wanted to meet another person with aloneness, not give off to them signs of being lonely.
But was I lonely? If loneliness is the inability to communicate with others perhaps I was becoming so; but if loneliness was the desperate need to communicate simply to stop me from talking to myself then obviously the answer was no. I may have been socially marginalized by my part- time work and no less so by my long-term single status, but I thought I was holding on to aloneness rather than slipping into loneliness. I sometimes wondered whether this sense of aloneness wasn’t increasingly spiritual; spiritual in the sense that I didn’t have concrete desires that would take me out of my self, but more a vague sense of purpose that would allow others to be incorporated into who I was.
That this was an idle dream might be an accusation some would level at me, and it was in various forms directed at me by the friends who were, as I’ve suggested, increasingly becoming acquaintances. Yet what they seemed to have forgotten was that a few years before they were the very people who helped augment my sense of being and me theirs. But they were perhaps never friends the way three or four people in my life have been, people who by virtue of geographical necessity and emotional complexity, remain occasional e-mail contacts but little more.
I was, if you like, a conversational celibate till the age of nineteen. I may have lost my virginity at sixteen, I may have had girlfriends in my last year at school and my first year at university, but it was only after that first year, as I toured France on a bike and train all summer, that I first discovered a kind of conversational lust: a desire to communicate parts of myself to parts of another. That there were two people that summer – one a girl I met in Montpellier and an older man I met in nearby Nimes– will hopefully make clear that though in the first instance our relationship turned sexual and the latter instance did not – that sex, even love, cannot quite explain it. With both there was this need to talk.
The man was in his late forties and worked as a private tutor, managing to make a living in this small city in the south of France. He had trained many years before as a teacher, taught till he was thirty, and then dropped out to make not much more than a subsistence living as a one-on-one tutor. We met sitting in one of the cafes in the centre of Nimes called la place aux herbes, underneath the famous clock-tower. He was sitting at a table next to mine, and had been joking with a couple of the waitresses whom he clearly knew. As I took out the Paul Auster book I was reading, I noticed him looking at the title and laughing lightly. I looked back, and at first said nothing, but then, as he kept chortling, I asked him in bad French what he found so funny. He asked, in English, if I was busily inventing my own solitude. I admitted what he said was amusing. There I was, a Scotsman in the South of France, on my own in a café, reading Auster’s book with more or less that title. Yet ironically it was that day I could say he helped me ‘invent’ communion as we sat and talked for several hours until it became dark.
What did we talk about? Amongst other things we discussed the irrelevance of happiness. It was too big a question, he proposed, and suspected that much of our misery lay in the size of our questions. There are several advantages to asking smaller questions, he believed, and none more so than that smaller questions can create the space for communicating with others; in the bigger questions so often the discussion becomes absurdly hypothetical or impossibly lacking in the necessary grounding. If we were to talk about the invasion of Iraq after Iraq invading Kuwait, and believed that it was a good thing or a bad thing, then we would be in danger of offering the absurdly hypothetical; if we started discussing the nature of the universe our knowledge would, unless we’re advanced physicists, be hopelessly inadequate. This isn’t to say, he added, we can’t say anything about either subject, but we would be better taking apart a contradictory argument by the president, or commenting on one small element of the Big Bang theory and its implications and talking specifically on that. He thought it was the same with talking about oneself: where possible make the conversation about yourself not obliviously autobiographical, but personally revelatory. That is, don’t so much talk about yourself, but about things that are meaningful to you that you believe will be at the same time meaningful to others.
He offered the above almost as a monologue, yet with a key difference. Every statement came with a pause lengthy enough for me to have space to agree or disagree, and occasionally he would laugh and say obviously what he was offering me might seem like a big idea: wasn’t he trying to define what makes for good conversation? But he also added, yet somehow with modesty, that conversation was his subject the way black holes might be physicists, or military expertise a general’s.
I was inclined to agree since, when we stopped talking, after he said that he had someone to meet up with and a film to see, I knew I wanted to talk to him again. I asked whether he would often sit in this café in the afternoon. He replied that he could be found most afternoons in this one or one nearby. I said I hoped to see him again shortly.
The next day though I didn’t return to the square; I realized that it was for the following day that I’d booked to go to Montpellier, and that my train was at eleven in the morning. As I boarded I wondered whether I would return to Nimes simply to have another talk with this man who managed in the space of around three hours to make thoughts spoken aloud seem more than chat. Maybe for no better reason than that they were thoughts spoken aloud.
As I arrived in Montpellier, I walked the fifteen or so minutes to my hostel, dropped off my rucksack, and thereafter spent the afternoon wandering around the city. What was I looking for? Not to the see the sights but not to ignore them either. I wanted to see the city, and I sometimes would think that the problem with seeing sights is that everything in between was a non-site, a mere transit place from one beauty spot to the next. As in NimesI wanted to see whatever my eyes chose to focus upon, and so often I would look at a building that intrigued me so much more than the building beside it which had far greater historical significance. However, where Nimes was chiefly famous for three sites – its Aqueduct, its canal and its Roman amphitheatre, Montpellier was more generally appealing, a town with nothing of great significance but much of general appeal. Not the least of them was the many young faces I would pass, faces that suggested to me a greater openness to life than those I saw in Nimes, where so many young woman seemed so bored that the highlight of their day was dressing up to go shopping of an afternoon. In Montpellier the young seemed not so much bored as slightly expectant: were many of them travellers, from France and elsewhere, looking to wile away a few months in a sunny, Southern town not so many miles from the sea?
It would have been on my second night in the hostel, cooking up some pasta in the kitchen, where I started talking to Karine, who was cutting up some salad to accompany the omelette that she was making on the ring next to mine. How long had I been in Montpellier she asked, and I said only a couple of days, but I explained that I had been in France for several weeks. She said that she’d been in France most of her life, and that Montpellier was one of the few places that she liked, or rather one of the few places in which she could relax. I noticed that as with the man in Nimes she started the conversation in a potentially selfish way, but with no hint of selfishness. I was used to people in Britain asking a question, answering it and then waiting for the other person to ask. But Karine, like the man in Nimes, asked a question and then, not waiting to be asked one in turn, launched into whatever interested them, but, it seemed to me, with an understanding of what would interest their interlocutor.
What we talked about as she ate her Omelette and salad, and I ate my pasta, was the importance of being alone and not lonely: it was the first time I’d ever talked about the idea, and was obviously revelatory enough for it to be still on my mind ten years later. She said that most of the year she lived and studied in Paris and was rarely alone but often lonely. She lived at home with her parents, near the centre of Paris, and was studying at the Sorbonne. Many of her friends from school went to the same university, and so while she was rarely without company she often felt isolated. How did she define loneliness I asked, and she said it was when the thoughts we have cannot find an adequate outlet. I wondered whether if by that definition I had been lonely all my life. Indeed, I mused over whether loneliness by that definition was in Britain a national trait. How many people were expressing themselves? She laughed, saying in France it is the opposite: many people express themselves but people rarely listen. After we’d been talking for an hour and after we had discussed a couple of biographical details, I asked her how old she was. She said she was twenty one – my own age. As she got up to do the dishes, turning to me occasionally so that we could still talk, as I finished off my pasta at the nearby table not too far from the cooker and the sink, I noticed her back. It was straight and tanned, and as she stood at the sink, I saw how well the clothes she wore suited her. The vest was a green that brought out her olive skin, the skirt red that brought out the redness of her lips, and the ankle bracelet brought out the wonderful narrowness of her ankles.
I offer these observations as I found her pleasant before we had even said anything to each other. Yet when I watched her doing the dishes after we had talked for some time, I found her beautiful. I would never have before thought I would find somebody so much more attractive because of one conversation. If someone had asked me, half way through chatting with the man in Nimes, what he was wearing, I don’t think I could have said, or if I could I have long since forgotten, and at the time would probably have only given a vague description like ‘bohemian’. I couldn’t pretend my interest in Karine was especially conversational, but I’m not sure if there had been much of connection without a conversation driving it. When I noticed her back, and how her clothes suited her, these were not the first things I saw. It was as though I witnessed, through the initial stages of talking, a style that seemed much more her after saying a few words than I would have observed before she had said anything.
I stayed in Montpellier for more than a week, and then travelled back up north to Paris with Karine when she returned to the capital. During that week, and the three days in Paris before I got the train back to the UK, we talked, yet not at any stage with the same intensity I had conversed with the man in Nimes. It was as if we would constantly dilute that intensity with touches, gazes and merely being silently in each other’s presence – however there was still this constant need to enquire into what we were looking at; never to assume that our relationship (which had of course become sexual) could settle into companionship. As we parted at Gare du Nord we agreed to hold to our pact: that we wouldn’t keep in touch; that our duty was to try and create equally meaningful moments with other people.
So I suppose this is why I talk of losing my conversational virginity. Whether it was that one off but immensely meaningful conversation with the middle-aged man, or my ten days with Karine, it was as though for several years I managed to sustain a certain conversational intent with others as well, and I draw the sexual analogy because I think there are certain similarities. Though as a society we obviously predicate one over the other – the sexual over the conversational – in my own life I feel they’re almost equally important. I felt, for example, around that time, around the time hearing the woman’s laughter in the cinema, of feeling alienated from the friends from university; that it is was the absence of both sex and conversation that was making me feel so estranged. Friends might have joked about an overly extended dry period, but for me this was as readily conversational as sexual. There I was living in Edinburgh for perhaps too long, friends with the same people I had been friends with for years, and one evening in the cinema I hear a laugh that seems to offer something else.
Over the next few weeks whenever I was on my shift I would see if Alicia Peterson had hired any films, and she never did. But then one day, shortly after I had opened the shop and was picking up the films handed in through the letterbox the previous night, Alicia tapped on the door and asked if we were open. I offered her first name in the previous sentence because that is exactly what felt right as she tapped on that door with what seemed to me both modesty and familiarity.
Of course, I said, and so she came in and asked if she could borrow some Lars von Trier films: she had a presentation to give on the filmmaker at the end of the week. Many people hire films but very few justify their reasons for doing so, and it was one of the things Karine and I had addressed when we both agreed one way that conversations become meaningful resides in whether either party will initially offer extraneous information that says something about them which can then be explored and expanded upon. As Alicia and I started talking about the director’s work, so I told her that I was in the cinema the same time that she was watching his most recent film and that we were the only two people in the audience laughing. She laughed at this, and the laugh was the laugh I remembered from the cinema a couple of months before.
As we talked in the shop for an hour with still no other customer passing through the door, I asked her the obligatory questions but somehow the answers were hardly delivered in an obligatory way. She was born in London but her parents were Brazilian and Danish, and as she talked it was as though everything stemmed from that initial laugh, everything seemed to come from some a slightly detached yet not at all cynical approach to herself and to life. When I offered her an observation from my own existence, when we met up a couple of days later for a drink, and I told her about losing my conversational virginity, at no stage was the expression on her face incredulous or puzzled.
Alicia was the first person I had met in several years for whom I had not felt estranged, who had not made me feel that the choices I was making in life ought to fill me with anxiety. But as I knew I was falling in love with her, and hoped she was falling in love with me, I sensed also that she probably needed my love rather less than I needed hers. As I had sat laughing in the cinema a couple of months before, I knew that it was the only time in many months that I had laughed consistently and freely. Alicia, whether it was in the cinema, in the pub with her friends, or on the occasions we had met up, seemed to find this laughter easily within her. How I might have asked could I find it so readily within myself? If some years before a middle-aged man in Nimes and a beautiful young woman in Montpellier had drawn from me a sense of conversational freedom, there was, very little laughter. Humour, yes, but not the deep laughter that came in response to the film, and that Alicia seemed to have access to so readily.
Now, a decade later, it is as if I need another freedom, a type of freedom that doesn’t so much take life and other people seriously, but the opposite, yet without remotely undermining them. I sometimes think that my return to well being, for I still often feel anxious, confused, and wary of where my life is going, will be complete when someone will be sitting in a cinema, and then later in a pub, and will hear my laughter and want to know from where, in all senses of the term, it might be coming from.