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When she left she took with her a few things of mine too. I didn’t notice at first, but in the following few weeks I would be looking for a book and it wasn’t there; photographs I had taken on holiday were gone also. She had moved out of the flat while I was at a conference for the weekend and, when I got back, resting against a vase with flowers in it I had bought her the previous weekend, I found a note. The flowers were aptly dying and, as I read this short letter where she said that she was leaving, after yet another weekend on her own while I was no doubt flirting with other women admiring my eloquence as she once had, I knew the symbolism wasn’t accidental. After all, the flowers were bought as an apologetic gesture: all that Saturday I stayed in working on the talk I was giving the following weekend. She wanted to stroll through Hampstead Heath, not too far from our Highgate flat, walk perhaps as far as Alexandra Palace. It was mid-Spring and the first glorious day of the year. I promised we would do it the next day, but of course on the sunday it was raining. As we sat in a cafe reading the newspapers and chatting without much point or purpose, I knew that this was the sort of resentment that leads to people leaving. It had happened to me several times before, and it was not until afterwards that I could see the steps that were required to keep the relationship together.


So she left, and for the next few weeks I moped and moaned, felt listless and yet oddly purposeful. I couldn’t tidy the flat or make a proper meal, but I could work. Sitting at my desk, working on a couple of essays on two favourite screenwriters, made me aware of why I had resisted the relationships my partners had sought from me. I believed when I would put down one word after another I was amplifying this self that couldn’t function elsewhere. During this period when I would speak to friends on the phone I wasn’t interested in their problems only my own. When I watched a film I was only engaged when it suggested a crisis similar to mine. I would go on walks past Highgate and around by Crouch End, looking for records that reflected my mood. I was a bore, I suppose, and wasn’t that what I had been for Gemma near the end? When I would think of the day that we missed, the walk we would have done, and then the next day looking out from the cafe window at the rain half visible through the glass and entirely audible as it pattered against the skylight, I wished I could have rewound the footage of my life just enough to have that weekend back again. Perhaps I would have worked for a couple of hours, but we would have been out of the flat before mid-day. We would have walked for a while through the heath, taken a light lunch at a bar on a table outside, or bought a sandwich and ate it on a park bench: the grass would have been too wet to sit on because of the rain the previous few days. We would have tanned lightly, and the next day she would not have looked sadly at other couples we saw sitting there who had a reddish hue to their skin, people suggesting they had taken advantage of the good weather, and presumably done so in each other’s company.


Yet when we break up with someone we often recreate those last few days as though they contained so much of the relationship’s meaning, when it is probable they are no more than a love affair’s epilogue. The main story is over, and what we ought to do is look not at the end but perhaps at the middle, at seeing what in plot terms would be an inciting incident, the moment that set in motion the end of the relationship. My job is in academia, and my specific area is narrative theory, yet I have never before tried to apply some of its rules (such as they are, no matter how prescriptively some people teach them) to my own emotional life.

It would have been around a year earlier when we were on holiday in Barcelona and, as we sat outside at a cafe, she asked where she thought we would be in a few years’ time. I hadn’t thought about this at all, and yet as she asked I knew she had thought about it often, and I knew no answer that I could give would assuage the disappointment I had just generated. I said to her that I would hope we would still be together, but I hadn’t filled those future five years with anything at all, and she could see that I was offering her the opposite of what so many people call a future: I was offering her no more than a perpetual present. In five years’ time we would be where we were then, another city no doubt, but still sitting next to each other, reading books, talking about an exhibition we had just seen, wondering where we might get some dinner. That evening we went for a meal and drank a bottle of wine, and afterwards walked happily hand in hand back to the hotel room. We were merry and randy, and, after kissing each other in a couple of doorways on the way back, and after starting to undress each other in the lift at the hotel, we made love longingly and lastingly in the bed. I remember it as the most passionate night apart from our first couple of months together, and now I might think that it was so because Gemma had decided to leave. Not that night, not the next month, but soon enough, when she had the strength, the purpose, the need.

During those weeks after the break-up I tried to write Gemma several letters, but I found that in writing them I was providing excuses, justifying myself without quite explaining to her why I loved her. I could not find the means by which to express myself without it sounding false, preconceived or self-pitying.


Throughout my twenties and into my early thirties, my father would often say to me that I was just like him: I wouldn’t be capable of committing to anyone; I would always want my freedom. I never knew if he was right about this; that he understood me so well that he knew the inner needs of my personality and the future requirements of it. But when he passed away I realised that his boasts were of dubious substance. That he didn’t know himself too well or had forgotten moments in his own life where he had wished for love over freedom. After he died I came into possession of most of his things.

He was an academic like myself, though in art history, and his flat in Edinburgh (the city where I was born and brought up) was full of books, paintings, and objects that he had bought from his numerous trips as a single man. He had always more or less lived alone after he and my mother broke up, though over the years I met about half a dozen of his girlfriends. They seemed more like lodgers than live-in lovers, and after a few months they left as if they were passing through the city as much as through his life. There was no sense of permanence. I assumed that they left him pragmatically and he absorbed it cynically. Whenever I would ask what happened to Gill, Martha, Penny or whatever her name happened to be, he would say they had moved on to pastures new, grazing in another man’s meadow.

Yet after his death, and while looking through his notebooks, there was a sense that these relationships were more meaningful than he was willing to admit, and that the most devastating break-up had been with my mother. Inside one of the notebooks there was a letter to her that he clearly hadn’t sent, and it opened without mentioning my mother’s name, but merely to his beloved, and ended with him signing it with no more than the letter A. (We didn’t share the same first name but did have the same initial: he was Alisdair; my name is Andrew.) In between he said he might have thought he could have coped alone, always wanted the freedom that he now realised he was not easily capable of, and that he missed her terribly. It wasn’t a long letter (around five hundred words), and the paper it was written on was frail and worn. I of course kept the original, but also retyped the entire letter and printed it out. I wanted to give the original to my mother, and keep the copy for myself.


That would have been five years ago, and when I handed it to her and she started to read it, she allowed tears to fall from her eyes and I seemed to disappear in her presence. Once she had finished, after I went over to the other side of the room and grabbed a box of hankies, I asked why she thought he had never sent it. She said that as I well knew he was a man of immense pride. While it was an achievement that he had confronted his feelings at all, the idea of him expressing them to her might have been too damaging to his ego if she had rejected him. I knew not long after my mother and father had split up that she started seeing my step-father, and I had never before asked how they had met. She supposed she knew why I was asking just after she had read the letter: would she have taken him back if he had sent it? That she didn’t couldn’t say: what she did want me to know however was that she was alone for almost a year after my father had left. It was clear by the wording of the letter that he had written it within a couple of months of the break up. Maybe she wouldn’t have returned to him: she was angry and resentful, and she sometimes wondered whether my father would have been able to have shown that much more feeling after he had he sent the letter: she would have needed far more contriteness and explanation before allowing him back into the house.

I didn’t ask her why, but her tone suggested that he had slept with other women. If so, then he happened to be quite different from me: I had always been faithful to everybody I had been seeing. I believed Gemma’s remark about attention from other women was acknowledging that while I liked the attention of others, this wasn’t quite the same as being unfaithful to her.


Gemma never knew my father, and has always liked my stepdad, but I would talk far more about the former than the latter. I would discuss his need for independence, his willingness to see himself as a solitary figure who would live alone, as if had I forgotten about his vulnerability, or trying to justify my own need for solitude. He was someone who always needed his space, I would say. He would often be out of London either at conferences or exhibition openings in New York, Paris, Rome and so on. As a teenager I didn’t seem to resent the notion that he had left my mother; the idea of him as a person who would go from one city to the next, who would send me postcards from the capital he was in and of a painting in the exhibition, and come back giving me gifts, appeared more important than his presence. It was as though what I wanted wasn’t a role model of stability and security, but of hope and possibility. My mother of course noticed this, and was probably mildly infuriated that I had far more admiration for my father who was rarely around, than her second husband who was and who would come to see me when I was performing in school plays, who would drive me to various cross-country events, and would diligently help me with maths, physics and chemistry when I needed to pass exams.

But there was nothing in my stepfather’s life that I wished to emulate. He worked in a council office and had a couple of half-hearted hobbies. He hill-walked and occasionally mountaineered. He was fit, healthy, intelligent and a man of his word, constantly matching it with deeds. As a boy I never, ever disliked him, feared him, or even disrespected him, but I could not admire him, and I hope something in this story may register my admiration after the event. He is still very much alive, still lives with my mother, but he deserved more of my respect years ago and not just now. I see in memory his walking boots at the door, his faded cagoule, and his woolly hat, and they are still there, or variations of them. He would never feel confident enough in his role to hug me or chastise me, and I see him now as a man of great feeling and astonishing emotional tentativeness. Even with my mother I felt he would sometimes be wary of showing affection, as though I might see it as an event exclusive to my parents, who brought me into being.

But of course I would talk far more about my father as I would tell Gemma that I felt it was the strength of his personality that allowed me to find my own. It wasn’t that he would push me into becoming successful, and maybe he wouldn’t have done so not because he didn’t want to seem overbearing; more that he was not interested in success that was beyond his own. I don’t want to redress the balance of my younger years by now failing to admire my father: I offer it neither as compliment nor insult. I didn’t want to please him; I wanted to emulate him. After all, many people have parents who would see themselves as failures in their own lives, and would push their children to be successful in their place. My father would never have needed to have felt that, and so from a certain point of view his existence for me was entirely positive. I could be, or become, my own man without believing he had prodded me into it. It was a forward thrust based on my own propulsion.

And now here I am a successful enough figure who can go to various conferences and expect to be a keynote speaker, or receive apologies for why I might not be, but I am also the person whom Gemma had the good sense to leave when she could see that career success possessed more meaning to me than personal well-being with her. I wouldn’t want to insist these priorities have suddenly been reversed in her absence, but over the following couple of weeks it had been tempered. During this time I reread my father’s journals and I noticed more feeling than hitherto. It was as though I had looked through them before searching chiefly for signs of will and purpose, and half-ignored the numerous moments where vulnerability and fear were expressed. Reading them after Gemma left the vulnerability and fear was all I could see.


I think that strength I claimed to get from my father impressed Gemma initially; she seemed to like the idea that I was someone who would set out to do something and follow through on my plan, but after two or three years I should have noticed more that she was frustrated by this will power, felt that it excluded her from my life, or turned her into an appendage of it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be tender or caring but, whenever her needs impinged on my work, I would be brutal.

Once we rented a cottage for ten days in the Highlands, taking a train up to Edinburgh and hired a car from there. We arrived at the village on the Friday evening, and for the first couple of days we got up early, made some sandwiches and a flask of tea, and went hill walking. The morning was cool, but there were no clouds in the sky, and by lunchtime we had worked up a nice pace and a fine sweat. We arrived back in the village shortly after six, had a drink at the bar in the one available pub, and had dinner there afterwards. We were home by nine, and made love with the tenderness of exhaustion. We slept well and were up early again, our calf muscles a bit sore from previous disuse, but ready to scale again another few hills.

But after two days of this I wanted to wake up on Monday morning and work, and for most of the rest of that week, until around three in the afternoon, I concentrated on a conference paper while Gemma went on short walks, read in the garden, or spoke on the phone to friends. If she had known I wanted to work she would have brought some of her own, she said, but I knew it wasn’t her having little to do; it was the sense I gave off that I had much to do which left her feeling…irrelevant. It was a word she used towards me that last weekend we were together, that afternoon as we sat in the cafe and the rain poured down. It was a word I noticed had been used by my father in his journals: that he had the habit of making women feel their lives were irrelevant next to his.

I recall when I first read that remark a while after he died that it was a comment about his own sense of purpose; now I am inclined to see in it a confession of his own selfishness as I see in it an aspect of my own. Have I echoed that sense of Gemma’s irrelevance here; mentioning now for the first time the work she happened to do? She is also an academic, a researcher in linguistics, focusing especially on children brought up bilingually. She is one such child, her father French and her mother English. We would sometimes discuss the differences between her work and mine. That she was interested in the context of language and I was often more preoccupied by the content of stories. However resistant I might have been to those who wanted narrative to have a categorical set of rules, I was still mainly focusing on those rules rather than individual films and books. She once showed me an article on linguistics by a contemporary philosopher, who would also go on to write a lot about film, and I noticed in it he was arguing for a context-specific approach to linguistics just as he would later (I would go on to find out) look for a context specific relationship to film.

I returned to the essay Gemma recommended, and after reading it read also a book that the philosopher had written about classic Hollywood comedies and the notion of remarriage. It was a book on film, but said so much about life, and I was reminded of a passage from the linguistic essay. “What seemed like finding a word in the dictionary was really a case of bringing the world to the dictionary. We had the world with us all the time, in that armchair; but we felt the weight of it only when felt a lack in it.” It reminded me somehow of a Nietzsche remark: “what good is a book that does not even carry us beyond all books.”

Somehow it reminded me also of my father’s relationship with his work, and now my own, yet I couldn’t deny too that the moments after Gemma left when I felt most myself, most engaged, purposeful and least mournful, was when I would work. When I thought about it this was so when Gemma was there also, yet the pleasure of eating together, going for walks and watching DVDs was important as well. When I would think about what aspects of my life were meaningful, the work would always come first.


It was as though it demanded an accident of fate to convince me that while I couldn’t deny the importance of the work, I wanted something beyond my consciousness to force me into a decision. It would have been around six weeks after Gemma left that I received an email from her saying that I might have noticed that she had taken certain things. She believed she had only taken what was hers, but realised as she started to settle back in at her parents’ place there were a few things of mine that she had accidentally taken too. If I would like to meet up she would be happy to return them. She said there were only a few small things, and we could meet in a cafe; for some reason I suggested the one in which we were in that last weekend.

I arrived first and found a table at the back, tucked into an alcove. I had sat there many times before, but always to work. It seemed to suggest privacy, but it was actually the privacy of solitude and not intimacy. It was easy to read or write there. However, after Gemma arrived, and we started to talk, I could sense not so much that others nearby were listening but that they could without difficulty overhear. She asked how I had been, that of course she had left abruptly, but she didn’t know how else it could be done. I said I understood: if I had thought more about it, and I had been thinking more about it, then it wouldn’t have seemed abrupt at all: inevitable perhaps. She admitted she had missed me; I said I had obviously missed her.

I expected her to be angry, and believed she would have been entitled to that anger, but instead she seemed accepting as we conversed. It was as though she had talked to a friend who had spoken well of me, or managed somehow to recall all my good points whilst ignoring all the bad ones. She announced that she had read a letter she initially believed I’d written but not sent: it was amongst the items that she had taken and wanted to return to me. The first time she looked at it she wondered why I hadn’t sent the letter; was surprised that I had written it, but then she worked out that actually it almost certainly wasn’t a letter written by me at all: it would have been written by my father. I asked what made her think that: it was a photocopy she said. Why would I write a letter to her, not send it and make a copy? She assumed what I had done was find it amongst my father’s belongings, made a copy, probably giving the original to my mother, and kept the copy for myself. As she talked quietly and I listened, I noticed the couple at the table next to ours,were glancing across as if with envy, seeing what they might have assumed was a couple generating once again complicity that they looked as if they had lost. Could they overhear us? I didn’t mind and didn’t care

Gemma’s deduction I admitted was correct, yet I was still bemused as to why she was nevertheless so without anger and resentment that afternoon, and why we will be meeting again at the weekend where, weather permitting, we shall walk around the heath, sit on the grass or, if the earth is damp, on a bench, eat lunch, and then perhaps go once more to the cafe that had become reflective of our attempt again at communication. As I looked forward to this meeting, I wondered if it would have been possible to write a letter myself that would have had the equivalent impact on Gemma’s feelings as the letter she accidentally found in her possession. I supposed that she had left not only because I had been too absorbed in my work, too interested in my career, but also because I had so much admiration for a father who seemed to have been even more ruthless and self-centred in the pursuit of his ambitions.

But then she came across this letter that indicated that perhaps he wasn’t so strong after all; wasn’t quite the man whose admirable qualities rested so completely on his important status as an art critic and theorist, but who knew that he had lost someone whom he very much loved. And of course what I had done was not only keep this letter, but make a copy, which indicated that I wanted to see in my father a fragility that illustrated my own, however indirectly. Of course some of this is supposition, yet if Gemma’s speculative analysis had proved so correct, perhaps my conjectures were equally accurate. I expected to meet her in the cafe that afternoon and receive if not abuse then coldness: instead she met me with warmth, tenderness, understanding. I was in her mind just as she is now in mine. When we meet again I hope she will recognize how much she has always been in my heart if not always quite in my head, and now that she is in both.

I cannot yet know how this will reflect on my work as a narratologist, but let me say, while I have always had reservations about certain ideas put forward by the more hardened theorists, I suppose I was not unsympathetic to the idea that in a good story a hero needs a clear goal, and must pursue it as directly as possible. It is also assumed that the person writing the screenplay will have very clear goals of their own too. They will work hard at creating strong characters, sound situations and accept that chance has no place in their creativity. It must be worked out like an equation, with everything in its proper place. I am perhaps now more inclined to think that heroes needn’t have clear goals, and writers needn’t assume that creativity comes from the sweat of their brow but the play between empathy and contingency, between musing over people’s thoughts and feelings, and accepting a chance situation. Maybe a letter written by another, the copy of which accidentally finds its way into the hands of someone, who happens to read it and its context with such nuance, does not seem to me the work of conventional narrative. I suspect I will teach the subject in the future aware in little ways of strict script rules irrelevant not only to my own life, but life, and that good art must accept the latter.

When I think back my father’s existence and how much it has influenced my own, I see in it now not only the admirable qualities of effort and will power, not even only as well the feelings he had which he would mainly hide, but also this final gift he has offered me from beyond the grave: a letter he wrote that might have won my mother back had he sent it, but looks like it could win Gemma back for me in his failure to do so.

©Tony McKibbin