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Limits

 

1

Sometimes the smallest of small talk can take on the significance of big talk with the help of a coincidence. It was in between Christmas and Hogmanay, last year, and my usual barber’s shop was closed. I walked the entire length of Clerk Street here inEdinburghbefore finding a shop that was open. As I walked in, there was a bored looking young woman seated in a barber’s chair with her legs up on the shelf below the mirror which had on it scissors, a shaver and a few combs. I thought about backing out of the shop again, wondering about the hygiene standards, but as I stood there in two minds she ushered me in with all the persuasion of someone selling me more than a haircut. She looked in her early twenties, with smooth, slightly tanned skin, green eyes and medium brown hair that seemed to have tints running through it; yet which nevertheless didn’t quite make her hair look unnatural.

I sat down and the abruptness of her gestures as she had jumped out of the chair and asked me into the shop were replaced with the tenderness with which she placed the cloak around me and clasped it around my neck – tight enough for the hairs not to go down my back, and yet not so tight that it felt like a noose. As she played with my medium length hair to see how much should be taken off, she touched it almost sensually and sensitively, as if even hair had nerve ends. Most barbers and hairdressers I knew would commandeer your head; for the time it took them to cut your hair it belonged to them rather than to you. This was different.

For the first few minutes of the cut we never said anything to each other, but at a certain point I felt as if the silence was almost humorously being sustained, and so I asked if she generally preferred talking to clients or preferred not to. She said that would depend on the client, but that she always left it for the customer to speak first. I asked why that was, and she replied that if she always talked about what she was thinking or doing it would be even more boring than silence. How many people a day can you tell how busy you’ve been, what you’re thinking of doing that weekend etc etc. No, she said, it is better if the client talks – it is more interesting. I laughed, saying I guess that depends on how interesting the client happens to be. It was her turn to laugh, and she said that she could always switch off. That she used the idiom switched off suggested her English was good, and I asked where she was from. She said fromSlovenia, and I said I knew of one or two of its writers, but that I had never been. She said it was much easier to get to now with bargain flights; and I said I had a friend who knew people in Ljubljana and had visited the city about seven years ago, when it was much more difficult to reach cheaply.

A look crossed her face that I couldn’t read but if I had known her better no doubt I could have. It was an expression out-with any other facial gesture she had offered during the haircut, and for the remainder of the trim neither of us spoke.

2

A couple of weeks later I invited the friend that I’d mentioned to the hairdresser around for dinner. My girlfriend was visiting friends inLondonfor the weekend, and I thought it would be a chance to discuss what happened during that trip seven year ago. I recall when he told me I found the events he described fascinating, but then afterwards, after we had talked about it for several hours, a day or two after he got back, he mentioned up again briefly a couple of months later when someone was maybe going to meet him in London, and then nothing more was said about it, and I never thought it appropriate for me to bring it up. Anyway, it wasn’t until several years later, two years ago, in fact, that I wanted to discuss it, though I couldn’t find quite the premise upon which to broach it. It seemed to echo a trip that I had just made, but I’m not sure if he would have been happy with the parallels. I suppose a haircut by a young Slovenian gave me the chance to see if we could talk about it again.

As we sat eating a standard pasta dish that took no longer than twenty minutes to make, as we always accepted food was no more than a necessary accoutrement to conversation if it was only the two of us eating, so, as usually was the case, we discussed the intricacies and specifics of a book we had read or a film we had seen, a gallery exhibition we had gone along to. The conversation was usually neither personal nor impersonal, but instead revealing of our thoughts rather than our recent actions. We rarely talked about what we’d been up to in the time since we had last met, except to allow it to become a precursor for a discussion of some art work or film, or book. So as we ate the simple food, and Garin mentioned an exhibition he had been to, so he then asked what I had been doing lately. I replied that I’d had a haircut: or rather a beautiful young Slovenian woman had given me a trim. He smiled as if recalling sweet memories and I asked him whether he had ever thought of going back. He explained that he had wanted to but couldn’t quite see how he could. He had after all gone over there to visit one woman, slept with another one and ended the trip having an affair with a third.

The first woman, Milena, he had met here inEdinburghsome nine years ago, when he was teaching film courses at the university, part time. She was a fellow teacher, who was teaching Art History at the university, and one term they offered a course in Art History and film and Garin co-tutored it with Milena. They had a brief fling – he was coming out of a marriage; she was getting into one: she was engaged inLjubljana– and at the end of the term she returned toSlovenia. He didn’t expect to see her again, and maybe they wouldn’t have kept in touch if it weren’t for the internet: a low intent form, Garin proposed, perfect for this type of situation. Two years after they had first met he decided to visit her in Ljubljana: she still hadn’t got married, still had doubts, and thought perhaps if he came to see her it would make breaking her commitment easier. She didn’t seem especially to want a serious relationship with him, he thought, but he supposed she wasn’t totally dedicated to her fiancé. By this time, though, Garin had divorced his wife, had no affairs since he’d met Milena, and with no children and no permanent contract (he was still teaching the occasional course at the university) may have been willing to move abroad. Perhaps she would have been keener to make it serious if she had known he would have considered moving there.

3

He booked his flight and when he arrived at the airport the hug Milena offered wasn’t as tight as the one he gave her, and this first sign of reservation was met by several others within the first twenty four hours. The most categorical being the single bed that had been carefully made up for him in the spare bedroom of her and her fiancé’s flat in the capital. Earlier he had asked where her partner was, and she said out of town, but when he saw the made up bed that she plonked his suitcase upon, he knew he was merely a guest.

The following day he tried to talk about the purpose of his visit, but Milena was evasive and she hadn’t promised him anything more than a holiday: she was putting him up in the spare room and showing him the local sites and he knew that she could only do this because she had taken time off work and that her partner was away. He didn’t really know whether he should admire her – for her fidelity to her fiancé, for her devoting so much time to him – or despise her; hadn’t she invited him on false pretences? Then again, were those false pretences not his own?

That evening they were joined for dinner at a restaurant by a friend of hers, Agnes. Earlier that day Milena had told him that her husband had recently cheated on her and she might be looking for revenge. Garin thought Agnes attractive, and her English was good, and her sense of humour more present than Milena’s. She looked several years older than her friend, and turned out to be the same age as Garin: thirty five. That night he had no use of Milena’s single bed, but her friend was more complicated than the process towards the assignation. While all it took was a few drinks to end up back at her apartment and to make it into her bed, after they had made love she talked for a couple of hours about her husband and her daughter. She had married very young, she said, and her daughter was now thirteen – her daughter was on a sleep over with a friend, and so, she added, was her husband: she knew he was visiting his lover in Novo Mesto, a town near the border with Croatia. This was the first time she had cheated on him, she said, though she was well aware he had cheated on her on several occasions. Why feel guilty, she thought – but guilt she felt, she insisted.

They woke late that Saturday morning, around ten thirty, and what woke them was her daughter closing the door behind her as she came into the apartment. There was no way that Agnes could hide what had happened, and so Garin got dressed, saw the daughter in the hall as he left the apartment, and presumed that Agnes would somehow explain the situation away to the young girl.

He went back into the town centre, stopped off at a café next to the canal, and ordered coffee and a pastry. On the way he phoned Milena from a call box and arranged to see her there in an hour or two. As he sat reading a collection of Tolstoy stories, The Kreuzer Sonata, he mused over how moral his own life happened to be. It wasn’t so much Agnes and her husband; it was the thirteen year old daughter he saw looking at him as he passed her in the hall: her face seemingly bewildered. When Milena arrived at the café he explained to her what happened and she herself looked mortified. She believed that Agnes’s husband would probably leave her if his daughter told her father what seemed to have taken place. He looked at the cover of the Tolstoy stories, and thought especially of one of the stories within it, The Forged Coupon, that he had finished reading while waiting for Milena.

4

He still had another few days of the trip to get through, and it seemed the operative term that lunchtime in the café, but as they were sitting there a work colleague of Milena’s walked in, and Milena introduced them to each other. Monika, he later found out, was only twenty five, but, Garin said, it wasn’t simply her pretty youthfulness that immediately attracted him to her. It was also that, as she moved lightly through the café, as she went over and said hello to someone working at the till, before returning to Milena and Garin’s table, that she didn’t seem, unlike Milena and Agnes, to be carrying much of a past around with her. At that moment he obviously had no idea whether she was going out with someone or not, and could see no reason why she wouldn’t be, but instinctively he thought that she wasn’t. She talked with them for about forty minutes and then said she had to go – but she hoped, she said, turning to Garin, that they would see more of each other.

That evening Milena and Garin ate alone in the flat, eating a speciality fish dish she cooked up, and they augmented it with a bottle of wine. By about eleven they were both quite drunk, and Milena suggested they dance to the music she had put on shortly before while she went through to make the coffee and to serve up the chocolate mouse. It was halfway through the album and she said she liked this particular song. As they danced she gripped him more tightly this time than he gripped her, and he felt a loneliness that seemed to run through her body.

That night, though, it was Garin who pulled away from her as he made it clear they shouldn’t sleep together, as if the combination of the Tolstoy story that he had read that morning, and the previous night’s encounter, had given him a strange if perhaps temporary moral dimension – as he admitted to himself that he was attracted to Milena’s work colleague, he felt like he might end up a bit like the forged banknote of Tolsoy’s story, passing from person to person.

On Monday, he arranged to meet Milena again at the café by the canal, and she came in with her colleague. During lunch Milena went off to speak to someone for a couple of minutes, and Garin asked Monika if she would like to go out with him later that evening: Garin knew that Milena’s fiancé was now back, and he had booked into a hotel for the night.

He was not even thinking of assuming that he had asked Monika out for a date. He never quite felt he could ask Milena whether she was single, especially after it looked as if only a couple of nights before Milena had wanted to sleep with him. All the previous day they had spent in each other’s company was tense with sub-text; and he felt asking any question about Monika at all would be a problem. But that evening Monika made it clear that she had no partner. As he walked her back to her apartment after dinner they held hands, and as she stood at the door to go into her flat she kissed him lightly on the lips, though didn’t invite him in. As she began to close the main door entrance behind her, she said it would be nice to meet up again the next day. She said she would meet him at lunchtime in the café.

For the rest of his stay he was mainly in Monika’s company, and saw Agnes not at all, and Milena only twice, and once because he had left a couple of items at her flat that she had spirited into her hand bag without her fiancé noticing. When he flew back ten days after he had arrived, he wasn’t so sure if he hadn’t fallen in love with the youthful, serene and innocent Monika.

5

This was what he had told me a day or two after arriving back inEdinburgh, and a few months later he suggested to her that they should meet up inLondon, where he could borrow a friend’s flat for a long weekend. That was really the last time that he talked about her; something happened that meant the weekend never took place, and I never asked him what that was.

I had no reason to until a couple of years ago, when I believed I caught myself in a situation not unlike the one he described. I will not go into too much detail, except to say that I had visitedMexico Cityto see a young woman I had met briefly inEdinburgh, but decided to stay in the country for three weeks, intending to travel around a bit knowing that she would be working much of the time. She had a boyfriend but he was often employed in the States, and they accepted the openness of their relationship, supposedly. On one of these excursions I went to the small coastal town of Puerto Escondido and it was there that I met my present girlfriend, Lucy, a fellow Scot who was relaxing on the coast after spending months travelling through central America. I phoned the girl in Mexico City to say that I had met someone else, and that I wouldn’t be coming back to Mexico City, except to fly back to the UK.

I suppose what I wanted to talk to Garin about when I got back from the trip was this idea of going to a place with a set of limited expectations and getting there and encountering the unlimited, the new life. I knew that the young woman inMexico wanted no more than a fling, and I wanted to know if that was really what he expected from his Slovenian trip with Milena. But to do so would have been to enquire into what went wrong with the woman that intended to visit him inLondon. There were both of us with the possibility of the unlimited, and his had been dashed and mine apparently successful. On which terms could we talk?  And anyway, usually when we met up it was for dinner, and Lucy was there as well.

But now, seven years after his trip, a couple of years after mine, and with the young Slovenian a connecting link, I thought I would ask him why he never again seemed to meet up with the vibrant young woman fromSlovenia.

6

He smiled, sighed and said that wasn’t an especially long story – simply a painful one. It was why he never talked about it with me; what was there to say? Yes, Monika and he had arranged to meet for the weekend in London, but then shortly before he booked the tickets, and after he had asked her what weekend would be possible, she phoned to say that she wouldn’t be coming. She had heard that he had slept with Agnes, and that it was because of Garin that Agnes’s husband had left her after the daughter had told her father about her mother having a strange man in the house. Monika asked Garin whether it was true that he was the man – and Garin admitted that he was. She promptly put the phone down on him and ignored all his further attempts to call her. She also refused to reply to any of his e-mails, and when he tried to get in touch with Milena (whom he hadn’t talked to or e-mailed since the trip) he again received no response. Once he managed to get through to Milena, but as soon as he said who it was, she put down the phone.

I could see the final failure of the Slovenian visit weighed heavily upon Garin; and I say this knowing the lightness he exuded when he came back from that trip. It was the happiest I had ever seen him: I had first met Garin around the time of his divorce and for the first year or so that I knew him, Garin he seemed preoccupied with the break-up. It had been acrimonious and petty, with his wife arguing over every detail, and Garin, who never seemed to me a difficult person, nevertheless spitefully fighting every point. The Slovenian trip appeared to have removed the preoccupation with his wife, but, after the subsequent problems, he was even more pessimistic than before. Since then he’s had no girlfriend and only occasional, insignificant lovers, and so even though years have passed, that was no reason to assume it was no longer of import.

Every question I asked I did so with trepidation, and much of the information I’ve offered above came from details he had never told me before.  Maybe he was so specific because he wanted to retell the story and at the same time remind himself how attractive women found him. Though he hasn’t changed that much physically in the last seven years, and barely at all if one were to see him sitting down, there was a weight to his walk that suggests an older man than his forty two years. Yet as he told me the details of his visit to Slovenia I saw him energized, even on a couple of occasions getting up out of his chair and moving around as he relayed for example his slouching gesture as he left Agnes’s flat, or how he walked along the road with Monika holding her hand.

Afterwards, after a couple of hours of reminiscing, he seemed deflated again, and I asked if he would recognize the young girl he’d shrunkenly walked past in the hallway of Agnes’s flat, even if she was now a grown woman. He was sure that he would, and looked at me strangely, did a double take, and asked if I thought the hairdresser was the very same person who was thirteen seven years ago, and who now found herself in Scotland. He laughed and mused over the psychology of a young woman going to the very country of the man who inadvertently caused her parents to split up. I said that needn’t be the case, weren’t their numerous cheap flights from the former Yugoslavia to Edinburgh now: wouldn’t it be pragmatic to come to Scotland for a year or two and earn some money that would go much farther back home?

7

I didn’t see Garin for several weeks, but happened to be in my regular café off the Royal mile when I looked up from my book – none other than the Tolstoy collection I felt I wanted to read after Garin mentioned it was the book he was reading in Ljubljana – and saw  him coming towards me. His usual longish hair was much shorter, and his head took on a different shape. It resembled in fact the haircut I recall him having around the time he took the trip toSlovenia. I said I liked the haircut, and as he sat down I wondered whether I thought it made him look younger, or whether I was simply remembering him having hair that short around seven years before. He explained he had been for a haircut at the very hairdressers I had been to a few weeks earlier. I asked if the Slovenian girl cut his hair and he said she had; and I asked if he thought she was the very woman who was the young girl whom he passed in the corridor of a flat inLjubljanaall those years ago. I also asked if he got her name, and he said that he hadn’t. He had asked, but she said she never told clients her name: one of her colleagues had said sometimes if men know your name they are more likely to pester you. As for remembering her face, he said he wasn’t sure, and maybe one reason why he asked for a short haircut was to see if she might recognize him. I wondered, though, whether, he had needed to ask: as if she had given him so similar a haircut to the one he used to have, to see if she could recall the man who rushed out of the flat and ruined her parents’ marriage; that somehow cutting his hair wasn’t enough – that she needed to style it specifically for the purposes of memory.

At this moment I could have told him why I had become so interested in his Slovenian story, maybe even more so than when he first arrived back, and more so than when I wanted to talk to him about it two years ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about the young Slovenian hairdresser. When Lucy returned from her trip down south that weekend I noticed I didn’t hug her with my usual firmness, and that night we didn’t make love as we invariably would do when we had been apart for even a couple of days. Of course I didn’t think the young woman fromLjubljanawould be interested in me: I may have been a few years younger than Garin, but I was almost into my mid-thirties. Yet I at the very least wanted to go back and get another haircut.

8

It was a couple of weeks later, around five or six weeks since my last cut, when I passed the shop to see if she were in. I had passed a few times in the intervening month and half, and always saw her there. But not this time as I kept walking, and then passed the shop again a couple of days later. Again I couldn’t see her. I went back the following Monday and popped my head around the door and asked if the woman who cut my hair a few weeks before happened to be available.  She said that she wasn’t; that she had returned home a couple of weeks ago. When would she be back I asked. She said she didn’t know; perhaps not at all. As I left she asked if I still wanted my hair cut. I said no that I would leave it for the moment. Had she left because of Garin’s visit; was she actually Agnes’s daughter, and did she leave happy that she had finally met the man who ha a fling with her mother, or distraught that she had been forced to cut his hair?

That afternoon I was quietly desolate, and couldn’t understand why I felt so heavy and listless. Even a few days afterwards I still felt this tiredness hanging over me, and it was a week or two after that when I told Lucy that I wanted to move out of the flat and get a place on my own. She cried, said that she knew we hadn’t been close for months, and noticed it especially the last time she got back fromLondon. I said it wasn’t her it was me; that I needed to make some decisions.

For six months I rented a flat that was minimally furnished, and I made no effort to make it any more homely than the day I moved in. I thought about leaving Edinburgh, thought about getting a more permanent and full time position than the few hours I taught at the university, even wondered whether I should go back to a PhD I had deserted years before.  I couldn’t understand why this young woman fromSloveniawho had done no more than give me a haircut had managed to impact upon me as strongly as she did. I would occasionally meet up with Garin, but didn’t really have the wherewithal to talk about it. Indeed it was as if the mere possibility that she had been the daughter, and that she seemed reasonably happy, reasonably well, had liberated him; he seemed happier than I’d seen him in years.

It wasn’t until near the end of my lease, and when I had decided I would finish my PhD, would try and get a permanent position at a university somewhere far fromEdinburgh, that the obvious presented itself to me. Or at least a rationalisation that made sense of my listless last six months. I realized I was exactly the same age as Garin was when he had visitedSlovenia. This needn’t have meant anything at all – but it never occurred to me before that the weight on his shoulders wasn’t one event in his life, but the accumulation of gravity on an existence. Maybe if at the same time we feel this accumulation we also have in contrast a possible lightness that can give us the hope of a lighter life, then, when it is removed gravity seems all the more intense and we disappear into a black hole we call depression. I felt if I had stayed with Lucy she wouldn’t have saved me from this despair but exacerbated it. It was as if I would have not only my own thirty five years but her thirty five as well: that I would constantly see my own mortality in the impending folds of her flesh, the lines on her face. To avoid looking at my own I merely needed to avoid the mirror.

As I hovered over this hole for six months, I was sure that my body needn’t be as heavy as it felt, and that I needn’t succumb to the middle-age that awaited me. Socially I could let myself slip into expectation: I could perhaps get married, have children and take a regular job. I could move in the opposite direction and sleep late, remain single and slowly deteriorate socially. What I wanted to do however, was look into that hole that could be the failed remainder of my life and move steadily away from it. I would take up running, I would finish my PhD, I would perhaps even at some stage visit Slovenia – but with no interest in seeing the three women in Garin’s life, nor the young woman who strangely came so strongly into if not my life than my mind. I might do many things, but I would no longer assume, as I think I had always done, that the limitlessness must be the possibility another person opens up inside of me. For the moment it needed to be a limitlessness opened up inside of me by me. I am not so sure if it didn’t take Garin’s experiences, my own thoughts, and six months looking into a dark place to make me feel as free as I suddenly felt, and I just hoped – a hope without another – that this feeling would last.

Between Christmas and Hogmanay, a year after my momentous haircut, I was once again walking along the Edinburgh streets and once again looking to get a trim. The same shop was open, and there was a young woman with her feet up on the sink, who for the briefest and most ridiculous of moments I thought may have been the young Slovenian. It wasn’t of course, but as I stood outside for a moment I  wondered if anything in the conversation I might shortly be having could lead to any significant change in my life; don’t we often go to the hairdresser not because we need a trim so much as a change? That haircut last year certainly gave me that. What would this one provide, I wondered, as I saw not only the woman in the large mirror with her feet up by the sink, but also my own reflection? Yet at that moment I saw, reflected also, on the other side of the road, Lucy, and offered a pathetic and shrunken wave through not only the shop window I was standing outside, but also through the reflecting glass. Perhaps she saw it; perhaps not. She didn’t wave back, and I didn’t turn round to face her.

 

©Tony McKibbin