What is it to be lonely? I suppose it means different things to different people, but all I can suggest here is what it might mean to four: to three ex-students of mine, and of course to the writer of this story also. I had recently been teaching an adult education class on contemporary literature in a secondary school near my flat here in Edinburgh one evening a week.
At the time I was more or less unemployed, the woman I had been seeing for a couple of years was feeling homesick, and had returned to Berlin. As I started to teach the course the sense of melancholy increased as the days shortened, and by the end of the term, though I’d enjoyed teaching, I realized as we all went for a drink after the final class at the beginning of December, that this had been the main social event in my life and also my main source of income – a two hour class every Wednesday evening. It had paid me enough money to sign off, and the following day I knew I needed to return to the unemployment benefit office, and look towards almost no social interaction until I would visit my sister’s family in Glasgow over Christmas.
When Hanna had left Scotland she was the last of our small circle of friends to go. A couple were in Australia, several in London, one in Paris and another in Manchester. The small gang that would meet up every weekend was now held together virtually – by occasional e-mail contact and only rarely by a visit. Had the class that term become my surrogate group of friends, no matter if during the first nine weeks of the ten week course we never went for drinks, generally didn’t know each other’s names (I remembered only two or three during that term) and yet where we had managed to create a bond between us that was more than educational?
The class was well attended on the first week, with twenty-five people, and the drop out rate was quite low – in the final week there had been nineteen people, and around fifteen of them came to the pub. The group comprised all ages, but of those who hadn’t dropped out, and of those who came for a drink, most were between around twenty-five to forty-five. As people began to leave the bar that night at around ten thirty there were five of us left, and we got to talking about our personal lives. One young woman whom I guessed was in her mid-twenties asked us all what we liked about Edinburgh. Isabelle came from Paris and admitted that she missed the cultural options available to her in her own city. One man around his mid-forties named Richard said that he had moved up to Edinburgh a few months ago for work, and admitted he joined the course because he wanted some social interaction: he sensed Edinburgh could be a lonely city. Another man, Paul, who was slightly younger, said that he had left school at sixteen and this was his first move back into formal education. A woman, probably also mid-forties, said that she had graduated the previous year at the university and all the friends she had made moved away. She added, to me, as the others drifted into a conversation amongst themselves, that she was a sort of escort – that she knew Edinburgh was a city that left many people feeling isolated, and, after graduating, and feeling a little lonely too, she informally offered herself up for dates with men who were looking for a bit of company for the cinema or who wanted to go out for a meal: she put adverts up in telephone boxes, and adverts in the papers. Melissa giggled and admitted if she liked her clients then they would go to bed together, but she didn’t say whether this was paid for or not. It was at this moment that Richard drifted back into our conversation and asked what we were talking about. I looked at Melissa and expected her to say something that would avoid her repeating what she had just said to me, but instead, she reiterated it – adding that, usually, she charged about fifty pounds for a meal and a film. There seemed to be no such thing as bad publicity. A little later, as we drifted out of the bar and into the cold night, I stood in a shallow puddle and cracked the ice, and as we said our goodbyes our warm breath, exhaling into the night air, seemed to me to capture that sense of loneliness, that sense of the air we were breathing somehow shared and yet our own.
Now one of the conversations I’d had earlier that evening was with Richard where we both agreed that Edinburgh was a city with rather less than six degrees of separation, though we also agreed that it was a lonely place. It was a town, we insisted, where you would constantly bump into people at three in the afternoon when you wanted your own space, but had nobody to phone at three in the morning when you might feel at your most isolated. I felt I knew Richard through that brief conversation far more than I knew Melissa, no matter Melissa’s bold self-revelation.
It would have been a few days later that our idea was furnished with a sort of example, when I was sitting in a café on the other side of town from where I lived, determined to get in a couple of hours reading for another course that I was teaching the following term. The course was on Celtic writers in exile, and included Joyce, Beckett, Trocchi and White. I was reading a book by Kenneth White on his idea about what he called Geopoetics. The café was French owned and in Stockbridge, and after about an hour Isabelle came in, said hi to the waitress and went into what I presumed was the office, coming out a minute later wearing an apron. It was then that she noticed me and said it was a nice coincidence and wondered what was I reading.
As I showed her the book she said that she knew it, that she had friends in France who were fascinated by Scotland (one of the reasons she ended up here), and who talked about this very writer – though she herself had never read him. She added that she wanted to sign up for the course next term, but she wouldn’t know until early January whether she was going to stay in Scotland for another six months. She offered a shiver and said that the country was too cold, or just too wet, or too dark. Or maybe a combination. Perhaps it was because of the conversation with Richard a few days before that I found myself wondering whether what she was really saying was that she found it too lonely. I would occasionally explore somebody’s ‘true’ feeling by logically eradicating the excuses that would hide it. Some friends at university believed that was one of my great strengths: that someone would come to me and say they were unhappy or depressed, and offer reasons why that I would work out were often not actually the reasons at all.
In an example like Isabelle’s I would have said was Edinburgh generally colder than Paris, was it that much wetter – this was the east coast of Scotland, after all, and usually much drier than the west coast? Or was she speaking about something else and providing excuses for the feeling? But that would have been my approach a few years ago, and maybe now I have too much emotional guardedness of my own to feel I can explore the false emotional self-justification of others. It might also have been because I knew that to ask wouldn’t have felt like disinterest.
As another member of staff called Isabelle over to help her in the kitchen, I thought back to her presence in the class and tried to remember that first day as I looked round at twenty-five faces, of all ages and from the young and physically pretty to the intriguingly wizened. I couldn’t deny that as I scanned them I found hers the most attractive, and couldn’t pretend that of all the people from the class I would have liked to meet accidentally, Isabelle was the one I would have been happiest to see. For some reason, we never talked just ourselves in the café bar after the class that last evening, but I sensed an affinity between us that I thought would make conversation easy. As I sat in the café reading for a further hour (I had been there for about forty-five minutes already), just before I left Isabelle came over again and I mentioned this was one of my regular cafes, and when had she started working in it. She said a week ago, and I said what I liked was that it was one of the few cafes that still felt like a café and not like it wanted to be a bar. She smiled and said that she didn’t really like the one we had been in for drinks – but she supposed it was the closest to the school. I asked her if she was going back home for Christmas or New Year. She said that she was staying – one reason she took the job was that she was running short of money, so a trip back to Paris was a luxury she couldn’t presently afford. I said I’d no doubt see her in the café again, some time before Christmas. She asked if I was going away for the period. For Christmas, yes, but I would be back for New Year.
It wasn’t until after I’d left and started cycling up the hill to the other side of town and back to the flat that I wondered if I had in my own way turned down an invitation. While I often feel that people are as lonely as I am, there are certain people who we assume are not lonely for no better reason than the way they look. I don’t even mean their expression: I quite literally mean their physical attributes. Isabelle had not just the clear eyes and clear skin of good health, but also more than that: she possessed the full colour that even Scotland’s sharp cold couldn’t drain. Her blonde hair devoid of split ends, her pale yet healthily flushed complexion, and her neat, unfussy dress sense that suggested fashion without becoming a victim of it, all indicated somebody happily self-contained. When I thought of Richard I thought I was looking at loneliness in his dishevelled appearance, his scratched glasses, his slightly stooping demeanour, and his scuffed biker jacket. His skin I had noticed was flaky around the nose, and his eyes watery and often raw.
It was while I was thinking of Isabelle and Richard, and as I popped into a whole-food store on the way back home, that I wondered where I fitted on the health spectrum. Was my appearance registering loneliness? I ate well that was true, as I walked around the shop picking up some wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice, cereal bars and some muesli, and I exercised regularly – mainly cycling, but also occasionally running and swimming. I was thirty-two and still had all my hair and my complexion seemed fresh and my eyes, if sometimes a little bloodshot with the cold blasts of air as I cycled around the town in the winter weather, were generally clear. If I felt lonely even if I didn’t especially look it, why shouldn’t Isabelle – away from home and with hardly any money?
A couple of days later I was in another part of town, not so far from where I lived, buying a new pannier bag for my bike, when I saw Richard coming towards me. It was the late afternoon, and already quite dark, and so perhaps Richard didn’t really see me as I came towards him and smiled. He looked straight in my direction, and then quickly looked away, but not so quickly that I couldn’t say for sure that he recognised me – perhaps it was the other way round: that he thought he recognised me and turned away thinking it was someone else. Unlikely but not impossible – and surely he wouldn’t have ignored me after we talked so openly in the bar a few days before? But then had I not noticed his flaky skin and his watery eyes, and I knew when I was listening to someone I would undeniably pay attention, but not always to what they were saying alone. I would also notice what they were wearing, how their hair was cut, what their teeth were like. Perhaps when we talked Richard had noticed this, and observed in turn how while I might have seemed attentive to what he was saying I was no less attentive to how he looked. I think some philosopher had said that in certain communications the person disappears as a physical presence. This has never happened to me, and even in the densest of conversations, the most meaningful of exchanges, the person is still very much a physical object of contemplation. Had Richard taken umbrage to this observing, to my belief that I had sensed his loneliness in his demeanour and look?
I went and bought the pannier bag and as I came out of the shop and into the drizzle I could see Richard in the distance standing at a junction, and looking like he wasn’t sure whether to cross the road or stay where he was. He ended up not crossing and instead walking ten yards in one direction and then ten in the other. Then he stood at the street corner and appeared to be musing over something. I stood in the doorway of the shop and observed for another couple of minutes, and as Richard once again started walking back and forth along the street I wondered whether he wasn’t only lonely but perhaps even slightly mentally ill. My departmental head said that occasionally in the night classes I would have people who were clearly socially at sea and even mentally unwell. She said when she had taught night classes herself it was obvious that sometimes people were using the class less as an educational opportunity than to re-enter society.
I also knew of a couple of people in my own neighbourhood who had slipped from loneliness into madness. One was a health food obsessive who deteriorated as his obsession became more abstruse, and his messianic tone more shrill. He would stop people on the streets and ask them if they had ever really thought about what they put into their bodies. Within the space of around three years I saw him moving from the eccentric to walking along the street muttering to himself, not even attempting communication with strangers. One of the curious things I noticed, however, was that where before I would see him talking to anybody but oblivious to them as he harangued them for five, ten, even fifteen minutes, when he had become obviously quite ill, he seemed aware not only of other people but peripherally so. Occasionally I would watch him from across the street as he walked along talking to himself, and even though I would have been out of sight, across the road and slightly behind him, sometimes he would turn round and look across the street as if he instinctively knew someone was watching his presence. Was this the same with Richard – was he more than lonely, and had he noticed when we were talking that I wasn’t just listening but also observing his physical flaws, his demeanour of loneliness?
That said as I stood outside the shop but inside the doorway, ostensibly escaping the drizzle but still watching Richard, he seemed not to have noticed me. As the rain stopped and I started to walk to the bike on the other side of the road, I saw coming towards Richard none other than Melissa. I took advantage of a car passing, retreating back into the doorway, and watched again as they met up, politely kissing each other on the cheek. As they popped into a café a few yards from where Richard was walking up and down, I crossed the road and got on my bike.
This assignation took place over a week after the last class, and I had no idea whether this was the first time they had met up since the night in the bar, or whether they had been meeting up regularly. Their body language, viewed from across the street, wasn’t easy to read. I wondered when they had exchanged numbers – or at least when Richard would have taken hers. I also thought about when we all had left the bar. I was close to the school and so walked the short distance to my flat, but the others had all started moving in other directions: perhaps Richard and Melissa happened to walk in the same one.
This might all seem idle observation of no consequence, but a couple of days later – about five days after my last visit – I returned to the café Isabelle worked in in Stockbridge. As I came through the door she welcomed me with the sort of fulsome smile offered by someone whose expectations were high, had steadily evaporated, and then been surprisingly met; though this was less egoistical insight on my part than hindsight: that was exactly what Isabelle claimed, several days later, that she felt as she saw me coming through the door. And what did I feel? I felt deeply relieved by the smile, for as with many lonely people, one of my greatest fears is that I might seem like a pest to others. I ordered my tea and as I took out my book Isabelle said that she had a break in fifteen minutes and she could join me if that would be okay; but if I wanted to read she would leave me to do so. I replied that it would be lovely if she joined me, and as I tried to read during those fifteen minutes as I waited for her to do so, my mind wandered off the page and onto thoughts of ways in which we alleviate loneliness.
Was even reading part of that process? I had been reading recently about a peripheral character in a novel who believed that the West’s attitude to others could partly be summed up by their notion of reading. “Leave me alone. I am reading, says the sign. What I am reading is more interesting than you could possibly be.” The central character didn’t agree, and I only half concurred. For me, a book is possibly the best of the person writing it, and so it makes sense that very few people can match the intense engagement of the carefully written word. Yet a book is also written by one person with the possibility of many readers: its subjectivity is diluted by form, yet usually the form is semi-given – it fits generically into a pattern. Yet a conversation when it is meaningful and purposeful finds its own form. It isn’t a conversation that has a preconceived structure, but finds it out of a mutual need to listen and convey. Most conversations seemed to me, however, to be exercises in self-aggrandizement, as people took turns saying what they had done with their lives so far and what they intended to do with them thereafter. In such circumstances, of course, I would rather read a book.
But what would I talk with Isabelle about – and how much could we say to each other in a break that would probably last no more than fifteen minutes? As she came over with a coffee and an almond croissant she asked me what I was now reading. It was a book by Trocchi called Young Adam that I was reacquainting myself with for the forthcoming course, and when she asked what it was about I replied: a man who believes leaving isn’t the same as escaping, and perhaps that is his bad faith. She laughed and said that what she liked about the last course was that I rarely described a book’s plot; I would usually offer a perspective on it: a take on the book that allowed for a degree of counter-interpretation. It was my turn to laugh and I asked her to give me an example. She mentioned Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, and that I started the class conversation by saying it was about a writer’s realisation that a self gains a certain robustness through interaction, but a certain subtlety from solitariness. Perhaps one of the balancing acts for a human being is to find an equilibrium between these two states. She added that I also said too much gregariousness can lead to a socially robust yet paradoxically weak personality; while too little can lead to fussy neurosis, and worse, madness. As I said this to Isabelle I shook my head as if to say did I really say these things in the class? Not that I didn’t believe in what I’d said; just that I wasn’t sure whether people would have made much of them. No matter if the thoughts came to me from reading Auster’s book; they were hardly impersonal remarks. Isabelle replied by saying that she sometimes wondered if whatever anybody said was offered with humility and sincerity then even if the person receiving it wasn’t sure they knew what the other person meant, then they would gain something from the intent, from the person trying to say something. She admitted occasionally things in the class would go over her head – laughing at her use of the idiom – but she never doubted that I knew what I was talking about. And even when some of the students were expressing themselves and she wasn’t sure whether they knew what they meant she thought it came at least from a place of self-expression, of a kind of intimacy. The problem with communication she often thought was that frequently people don’t believe in what they say or when they do believe in it don’t really attempt to communicate it to someone else. She reckoned I seemed to know what I was talking about, and wanted to communicate it and even allowed students who didn’t always know what they were talking about to at least make the attempt at personal connections with the tutor and with each other.
I felt obviously flattered and was about to offer a few qualifications, and examples of my own inarticulacy, when she looked up at the clock above the café door and said she needed to get back to her shift. She quickly ate the croissant she had as yet left untouched, and swallowed the last of her coffee.
I read for another half hour but my mind was as much on the conversation with Isabelle as the words on the page, and I also wondered what Richard and Melissa talked about when they had met up. Did they even meet to talk, or did they bypass the escort services (if that was what he had phoned her for) and go straight to bed? What type of loneliness was being fulfilled there? I’ve often not quite understood when in films or in books a character says he is lonely and that he needed to sleep with a prostitute. I’ve never comprehended how paying for someone to alleviate it can allow for that alleviation. If it was simply for sex the way one might masturbate then I can make sense of that, but I would have thought one’s loneliness would increase through paying for a woman, not diminish it. As I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Isabelle, I felt that it was so mutually meaningful, so focused on what preoccupied both of us, that it seemed the opposite of a transaction.
As I paid Isabelle for the two teas I drank, I asked what she was doing over Christmas; she was having a meal with her two flatmates from South Africa, she replied – it seemed only non-Europeans weren’t going home, she added. I said I was going to Glasgow to visit my family the following day, on Christmas Eve, but would she like to meet for a drink when I got back on the 27th. I suggested a time and a place, and she said that would be lovely. Later that evening I met up with a friend from university, one of the people I mentioned who had moved away. He was back in town to spend Christmas with his parents, and as we talked he asked how I was doing since Hanna had left. I admitted I was lonely, but teaching the course helped, and for some reason I decided not to say anything to him at that moment about Isabelle. Really what was there to tell? But I think I didn’t withhold it because Michael would find it negligible: we had the sort of friendship based not on broad strokes but the minutiae of our lives; and maybe I would have tried to explain it to him a little later in the evening but for the entrance into the pub of none other than Richard and Melissa. Somehow what I needed to express about my feelings towards Isabelle, and possibly Isabelle’s feelings towards me, could best be exemplified in these two other ex-students. As they ordered drinks at the bar, and then went to sit down, they suggested the familiarity of two people who had been spending a lot of time together – it was no more than a week since I had seen them meeting up on what I presumed was their first ‘date’.
As they glanced across in my direction I offered a nod, and afterwards asked Michael to observe them for a minute or two and tell me how long he thought they’d known each other. Not a long-term relationship, he suggested, but they seem familiar enough with each other to have been going out for around three months. As I also observed them I wondered how much of that three months Richard perceived included the time spent in the class, time where everyone was, as Isabelle suggested, able to open themselves up and express thoughts usually kept well out of a classroom environment. I also wondered whether such thoughts would have been expressed, and the class taken the intimate direction it took, if I hadn’t been so lonely when I started teaching it and whether, if Isabelle and I were to continue seeing each other, I would teach in a similar way the following term.