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When we listen to the stories of others with curiosity it is often because out of them we can hypothesise our own, but sometimes it is because the story they are telling could almost have been our own. When someone tells us of his wife’s infidelity, a son or daughter’s misdemeanour, an argument they had at work the previous day, we listen with a subjunctive ear: couldn’t that have happened to me? But occasionally someone tells a story, and you realize they are talking about you as much as about themselves.

I would meet up every week or two with Joe, a physics lecturer I befriended after he came to a talk I gave at the local art-house in the large town in which we were both living. At the time I was working as the film programmer, and occasionally I would give talks on some of the films that we’d chosen to show. After one of the screenings of a Polish filmmaker’s work, a film director fascinated by science, I quoted one critic who said he was a physicist in film form. I had offered it as a throwaway remark, an interesting observation that people could have a think about, but someone insisted that I say more about it, and that person was of course the very physics lecturer with whom I would become friends.

That evening I don’t think I managed to answer his question but he asked it in such an open, unimposing way, and I answered it, he later insisted, in as full a manner as could reasonably be expected in the circumstances of a casual Q and A, that afterwards we talked in the cafe bar for an hour until it closed. We arranged to meet again, and after that we would see each other every week or two.

I didn’t know very much about his domestic life, except that he had a live-in lover of whom he would always speak lovingly and yet who I happened to meet on only a couple of occasions, when I met them on the street. She was also a physicist, but it seemed that she lacked Joe’s interest in cinema, literature and philosophy and their paths apparently crossed more at work, he said, than outside of it.

It was the closest he had ever got to saying anything about her that might be construed as a criticism, and yet that may have been my interpretation of the comment based on what I thought must surely have been a problem. How could he have so passionately these other interests and not share them with her?

It was a mid-July afternoon a couple of months ago that, as he came towards the outdoor cafe table where I was sitting, I noticed a new languor to his body language, an acknowledgment somehow of its luxury rather than its necessity. Joe was in his late thirties, and looked after himself more in habit than in demeanour: he ate only white meat and fish rather than beef and steak, and drank little, never touched coffee and enjoyed swimming. But his walk and his dress sense often indicated that the body was a chore that contained his mind. That day though he was strolling along with nonchalance and, as he sat down, I asked him why the new walk. He wondered why I thought his walk was different, and after I said I could discern a difference in his manner he explained that he hoped Jill wouldn’t be quite so perceptive. He told me about a very walk he had taken the previous evening, with a woman a few years younger than he happened to be, and far too pretty he was sure to be interested in anything but his casual company.

The previous afternoon, at around five, he had gone for a drink with a colleague in the department, who was a German post-doctoral student, and the colleague said his sister, Hanna, who was visiting him for a week, might come along. She indeed joined them after around half an hour, and when her brother was called away by his partner’s call, and talked to her outside for about ten minutes, Joe and Hanna realised by the time the brother came back that the small talk they intended to make had become an inquiry into certain questions he said not unlike the ones he and I would sometimes raise. When the brother said that his two year old son seemed to need his kisses, Joe hoped that the sister wouldn’t get up and join him. Their drinks were half finished and Joe said that he was going to stay and finish his pint, and the sister said that she would stay and keep him company and finish her own. An hour later, and after another drink, he asked her if she wanted to walk for a while. It was a warm evening, and they strolled along the river, still talking about the subject that had instigated their conversation a couple of hours earlier.

I asked what it happened to be, and he replied: whether memory damages energy. She offered it as a provocation when the brother was called away, after he had asked her jokingly to start the small talk. She did so with a comment not too unlike the one I had made about the Polish filmmaker the previous year. It didn’t really matter whether it was true or not; it created a pocket of energy all of its own, he proposed. Joe went on to say that it was nine thirty and almost dark when he got home after walking her back to her brother’s place. When he entered the flat he saw Jill sitting reading through some papers, and she asked without looking up where he had been. Was he still hungry? He hadn’t eaten, but he didn’t wish t eat, and as he looked in the fridge and in the cupboards there was nothing that would satisfy the feeling in his stomach more than a kiss from the young woman he had been with for several hours.

Yet he told me he still loved Jill, that nobody he knew understood his habits better than she did, nobody knew like her when he needed solitude, when he needed to meet other people (like me) and that his interests meant that it was not uncommon for him to come home at ten at night, having left Jill to eat on her own. Such forbearance made him feel that he couldn’t leave her if he wanted to because of the guilt, and that he didn’t want to out of love and affection. We had before only talked about general subjects that interested us, not about our personal lives. Talking now about himself, I felt for the first time much older than Joe, even though I was five years younger than he was, and where he was an established figure in his field, I was someone who was still, in my early thirties, intermittently on the dole, occasionally signing off when I sold a few film articles, interviews or did a few talks. I said that he had met the woman only the previous day, and she would be leaving presumably in several: hadn’t he said she was only in the town for a week? Was it not merely an enjoyable evening with an attractive young woman?

Now one reason why I found Joe so much more mature than I was lay in the very maturity of his arguments. He would never let his own or another person’s opinion stand without being justified, nor would he ever immediately dismiss an argument because it seemed utterly invalid. If I said that I believed the moon was made of cheese, all he would ask is, if I thought that to be so, why did I think it. Once I said that a writer he liked was over-rated. He asked why did I think that – had I read specific reviews that seemed to credit the writer with qualities that on reading him I realised the writer didn’t possess? I answered that I didn’t know; that I may even have been echoing someone else’s claim, and that I hadn’t really given the thought that much attention. Joe was in the habit of giving his thoughts and those of others a great deal of attention indeed. Yet on this occasion was he talking naively, or was it one rare instance where my own experiences had made me more sophisticated?

I asked him to tell me more specifically what had so attracted him to her, and he suspected apart from her prettiness, her own very languid walk and her general sense of calm, it was that she never seemed to offer opinions, had never in the hours he had talked with her said anything that he expected her to answer more than she expected to answer it herself. He felt she knew her own thoughts better than anybody he had known, and, perhaps as a consequence, he said grimly laughing, he felt he didn’t any longer know his own thoughts: he didn’t know what he felt and what he should do.

When I met up with him a few days afterwards, we went to the beer garden next to the river where he had first met her, and as I ordered the drinks at the bar while he sat at the table, I noticed that he couldn’t sit still as he played with his mobile phone – which he usually wouldn’t even take out of his pocket – or bit his nails. As I returned with the drinks I said he seemed to be in a bad way, and he replied that he knew he was in a mess.

He had met Hanna again the previous night, the evening before she returned to Germany. They had walked for hours he said, talking and talking, and then went for a couple of drinks. He didn’t get home until midnight. Jill was in bed when he got in, and the bedroom light was off. As he slipped in beside her he suspected she was feigning sleep, and he was relieved. He slept for maybe an hour, he felt, and his fidgeting probably kept Jill awake even if she didn’t have her own reasons for a sleepless night. In the morning when he got up she had already left; not always that uncommon as she would like to work for an hour or two before having breakfast in the canteen. It gave her a sense of achievement he admitted he never fully understood. He would much rather read a novel late into the night and get into work often after nine.

Indeed he said it was only a few weeks before that he had been reading a short story by Alberto Moravia where the writer said that people in love are always in rhythm, and though he hadn’t thought much about it then, it of course seemed fascinating to him now. Wasn’t there a difference between rhythm – that initial and curiously automatic alignment we often feel when we fall in love, and the habits we fall into when perhaps we merely feel love for the person we have been with for years? With both the young woman and Jill he was in step with their ways, but while with the young woman it was instinctive, he believed with Jill it was habitual. He knew her habits, but even if he didn’t know the reason for them it gave him no alarm, whereas it seemed every gesture of the young woman’s he was curious to enquire about, to ask why she would often tilt her head to the side, why she said she never drank during the week and only at weekends; why she also never touched red meat but still ate fish and chicken. He wanted to know if she wore green – as she had on the two occasions they had met – because it matched her eyes even though they were hazel. The questions he wanted to ask appeared infinite; yet he wasn’t even interested to know whether Jill might have still been awake when he came home, and whether his restlessness had kept her so. It wasn’t only that it would have been awkward; he didn’t much care.

I remembered reading a philosopher say somewhere that nothing speeds up our curiosity like love: if only we could do our PhD on the people who endlessly fascinate us we wouldn’t need three years, probably one would be enough. He laughed, but his laugh no longer seemed to come from so deep a place. It stopped sooner than usual, as if preoccupation killed it in mid-howl. I asked him what he was going to do, and he said that he would leave Jill, maybe even leave his job.

When Joe told me this my breath became a little short, and my own mind drifted rather more completely than his must have done when he suddenly stopped laughing. It was certainly the case that, throughout the telling that day and the earlier one, I had listened attentively to everything Joe had said, but I did so not only as a concerned friend: it was also as though Joe was replicating a scenario from my own life several years previously. About five years before I too was living with my girlfriend of some years, and I too became fascinated by another woman.

I was living in London with Susan, whom I had met in the early nineties at a Scottish university, though we were both Londoners. We were both good undergraduates, both getting firsts, but where my PhD on a German filmmaker never went anywhere, her dissertation on several Afro-Caribbean writers became a book. After doing post-doctoral work at the Scottish University, she was offered a position at SOAS, near Euston station. We had both wanted to get back to London, and though we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford the centre, at least Susan would be teaching there. I think we were both feeling frustrated in the north, felt that we needed to be back again in a large city, and rented a one-bedroom flat in Cricklewood as I got a temporary job as a property agent. I would receive a small commission on all the flats I managed to rent, and a bigger one on properties I sold, and after eighteen months I had enough money to put down a deposit on a mortgage of our own. Susan and I even found the place we thought we wanted to buy, a tiny two-bedroom house in Stoke Newington, a part of London that was becoming fashionable despite the disadvantage of no tube station. It would even have space for the kids, Susan said, when we went to see it. While looking around the house all I could see was the cramped kitchen, the sitting room that wouldn’t have space for more than half a dozen friends, and two very small bedrooms upstairs, and with walls no doubt so thin that every grunt and groan from the neighbours would be blurrily heard through disrupted sleep.

I asked if we could wait. The house had been on the market for a month. There had been some interest but no definite offers. I told Susan that as the agent I could see the offers coming in, and if we really wanted to buy we could: there was no reason to rush. As we left the house that I suspect she had imagined living in as much as I hadn’t, I saw her slight frame look even smaller than usual. I thought the house probably was for her, but not for me. I put my arm round her as we walked along the street to where I parked my car, but my bulky arm around her small shoulder never felt clumsier. I am not a tall man, but a stocky one, and my arms always seemed to make Susan shrink when she was in them.

A few weeks later I was showing a one-bedroom flat to someone. I happened to arrive earlier than usual, and it was the first time I had seen the apartment myself. Sometimes I would rent or sell properties that I couldn’t possibly live in, and others I couldn’t possibly afford. But this one was both within my price range and one that I could easily see myself occupying. It was a top floor flat in Highbury, with an open plan kitchen, a bigger sitting room than the one in Stoke Newington, and an albeit very small bedroom, but with a mezzanine bed, where a desk and chair sat below it. The flat was designed it seemed for a student. It felt like a space I already knew well and, letting my mind wander, I thought of splitting up with Susan and living there alone. At that moment the buzzer rang. As I answered it a woman with a foreign accent said she had come to look at the apartment. She came up the four flights of stairs and as she reached the top landing I was standing at the door ready to usher her in. She was probably taller than I expected. Perhaps because the apartment seemed to demand a compact tenant I anticipated someone smaller; perhaps I am also including in that initial reaction a later one – how she never seemed shrunken in my arms as Susan would.

I showed her around the apartment and while doing so observed how though she was almost my height – I am five foot nine – she never moved like a tall woman. She moved like someone who was always somehow alone. With Susan I thought it was usually the opposite: whenever I would see her waiting for me at a cafe, or outside the university, I saw someone who looked alone and emotionally undernourished. She was a woman in need of an affectionate square meal three times a day. I’m not sure if I ever provided it. Looking at this stranger in the apartment, she seemed like a woman who got her calories where she could find them. The freedom I felt before she arrived was intensified by her presence.  She said she would take the apartment, said her name was Alice, and we arranged to meet at the office the following day where she would sign the papers and pick up the keys.

That evening over dinner I barely talked to Susan at all. I observed her instead, watched how she moved through our flat, saw how she fastidiously tidied up around her. I sometimes thought that she got the job at SOAS chiefly through neatness. I remember when we both started our PhDs, where I read indiscriminately, letting my mind and feelings try and find the centre of my interest, Susan listed all the books she thought she needed to read. There were the primary texts: the complete novels of the four Afro-Caribbean writers she was focusing upon, then the secondary reading which consisted of critical writings, interviews and autobiographical pieces; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the theoretical apparatus: Said, Spivak, Derrida, Homi Bhaba, Fanon, Foucault. I don’t want to undermine the hard work and intelligence that went into that PhD, and anyone who wants to judge it for themselves can probably find it in any good book shop with a decent Post-Colonial Studies section. But at that moment, as she washed up the dishes while I cleared the table, I thought she was someone who saw me too much like her dissertation. She expected to marry me, for us to have children, and that she would continue working in the subject until she retired. It all had order.

But what did I want? I dropped out of the PhD on film, and there I was working as a property agent in the English capital; hardly much continuity there. That night I didn’t sleep very well, and whenever Susan brushed against me I inched my way farther onto my side of the bed as I thought instead of the woman, roughly Susan’s age, that had come to look at the flat earlier that day. When Joe said that he had hundreds of questions to ask of Hanna, it was how I remembered feeling about Alice. I wondered where she was from, why she was renting the flat, why she looked perhaps Middle-Eastern but had an English name, yet an accent that sounded more American and yet with a hint of French.

The next morning she arrived at the office at eleven as arranged, signed the papers and I asked her when she put down her status as student what she was studying. She said literature of the southern Mediterranean: Camus, Mahfouz and someone else I had never heard of; she was studying, of course, at SOAS. She was surprised that a property agent knew Camus, even more so that I knew Mafhouz. I had read most of Camus, but I’d never read Mafhouz, and didn’t want to say why I knew of him at all. Susan had used a comment he made concerning the inevitable third-rate nature of African prose as one of the key comments in her PhD, trying to argue that while Mafhouz claimed Africa couldn’t produce a Proust, Susan believed they had created several equal to him. What I did ask though was whether she believed Mahfouz the equal of Proust. She looked at me surprisingly and said no she didn’t, and of course that is exactly what Mahfouz believed.

I suspect it was the comment, indebted to Susan, that made Alice agree to go to lunch with me the following day. We chose a place not far from Alice’s new flat, an echoing deli with a few tables where our stillness as we sat talking for two hours seemed contrary to the hectic bustle around us. She said it reminded her of the Middle East, and also of her father’s restaurant in New York. During our conversation I hardly recall asking Alice a question at all, and I don’t remember her asking me any either. When she told me about herself it seemed to come out of the subject we happened to be discussing, or the space we happened to be in. I mentioned the importance of existentialism on my PhD, and she talked about its significance to hers. She said she had little interest in exploring the political dimension of her PhD chiefly, but instead wanted to show how writers described things: she loved Fanon and Foucault as much for their descriptive passages as for how they theorised. I said I liked it when description and theory would intermingle, when a comment by a philosopher explains beautifully the behavioural inexplicability of character. Our remarks seemed to lead from one point to another, and back and forth. After we talked, I said I had to get back to work, but maybe we could meet again. She hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend; I hadn’t mentioned I was with someone.

We met a couple of times a week over the next month, and then after that we would meet in her flat as the friendship turned intimate. Throughout this period I never told her about Susan, and the one subject Alice said she would prefer not to talk about was her lovers, as though she had several. When she finished her PhD nine months later she returned to New York, and sent me a month after her return (to her old flat) the one letter I received and that I remember of course clearly and still possess. It was in response to several e-mails I had written to her and where she hadn’t replied.

In it, she said that she maybe knew more about my domestic situation than I realised. She was a sometime student of my partner, and she knew this because she had met her a couple of times in the cafeteria and they started talking. From what Susan said it was clear that I was her boyfriend: there cannot be many PhD candidates in a Scottish university who then take to renting out properties in London, and she also knew in the manner Susan talked about me that she loved me, and saw that for Susan her future was in our relationship and her work. She even worked out that the Mafhouz comment I had offered that day was probably due to Susan, and she wondered why I hadn’t credited it to her at the time. She also said in the letter that when she said she wanted no mention of lovers, it was partly because she suspected I had one and didn’t want to talk about it. If I had wished to keep my emotional life to myself, that was fine; but she decided that she would do the same. It was a feeling obviously confirmed when she talked to Susan, and it was probably talking to her that reiterated her feeling that what she knew about me was partial. How could it not be so when one of her tutors could tell her things about me that she had not known herself; that I had kept from her?

I cannot really say why, though I felt I was in love with Alice, I could never tell Susan that I was seeing someone else and wanted to end it. I tried e-mailing Alice a few more times, and would have sent letters too but had no address for her in New York. Yet still I didn’t say anything to Susan, and it wasn’t until several months after Alice, and after the e-mails for which I got no reply, that I told Susan I was leaving, that I hadn’t loved her for quite some time, and that I had been offered a casual job programming films at an art cinema outside London. I still didn’t tell her about Alice.

That was a year and half ago now, and not that long after that I of course met Joe, and so I listened to his crisis with especial sympathy, and also believed the manner in which he was handling it indicated he was a much nicer human than I had been. What was also perhaps a little strange was that despite Joe’s openness about his own dilemma, I didn’t once mention my similar predicament. Indeed I hadn’t told anyone, perhaps because I acted so badly and didn’t want anybody to know what a horrible person I could be, or in this instance didn’t want to influence Joe with my own story: that he might read it too much as a cautionary tale and stay within the moral boundaries of his own life. He still hadn’t slept with Hanna, still had nothing really to tell Jill.

Yet I couldn’t pretend that my guilt was stronger than my regret, as I wished not that I had told Susan I was seeing Alice but wished that I had told Alice that I was seeing Susan and wanted to end it so that Alice and I could be together. Any guilt I did feel towards Susan was weak next to the anger I felt pathetically trying to protect her feelings and perhaps a future with her I thought I should retain as a possibility. Was Joe doing exactly the same thing, so that in a year’s time he too would be working somewhere else, no longer with Jill but feeling nothing but that he had missed the chance to be with Hanna?

The third time I met up with Joe to talk about Hanna he said that the previous evening he had told Jill that he believed he was no longer in love, that he may have met someone else, and he wanted to visit the woman in Germany where she lived. Jill asked Joe if he loved this other woman, and he said he thought he did. She guessed of course who it was: was she not the sister of their work colleague who had been visiting the previous week, and whom Jill had met briefly in the corridor with her brother? Somehow, Joe said to me, her comment astutely undermined the cosmic destiny he supposed he felt with Hanna: she simply noted the probability of such an encounter. A pretty young woman comes to the university and happens to be the sister of Joe’s colleague and this makes it easy for Joe to make contact and all so easily and promptly to fall in love. She offered her comments with contempt and said the sooner he left for Germany the better: she would start packing up his belongings. When he got back he could rent a flat somewhere, a little love nest.

He explained Jill had never shown bitterness before. Even when someone used some of Jill’s research as her own, she responded with the irritation of a person who was annoyed that someone else had broken one of her cheap plates. This time though it was as if he had dropped a family heirloom from a great height. Joe often talked in metaphors and similes, and I felt he often did so to protect a feeling while also making it vivid. He didn’t tell me that Jill broke down and cried, that she clung to his sleeve as he tried to leave the apartment, though she may well have done. Earlier, when I asked if Hanna was in love with him, he said simply that she supposed he was some water in the desert but that she was worried it was a mirage: that the real water was reserved for someone else. I didn’t doubt this was Joe’s image more than Hanna’s, no matter if it reflected Hanna’s feelings very precisely. He was always the opposite of someone who turned people’s feelings and thoughts into caricatures; he turned them much more sensitively into images. I asked when he was going to Germany. He said in a few days’ time. I asked if he needed somewhere to stay; he said he was over at Hanna’s brother’s.

As I thought about Joe’s capacity to reveal someone’s feelings whilst protecting their dignity, I realised that maybe one reason I hadn’t told anyone about the affair with Alice, or why exactly I had left Susan, lay in my inability to express my feelings and those of others without trivializing them, offering up the hassles involved but rarely registering the emotional impact of the situation. When my mother or a friend had asked why Susan and I had split up, why I had moved to Oxford, I would reply with little more than a shrug, yet knew in that gesture I was dismissing years of affection and subsequent pain. Joe seemed capable of registering both in a metaphor. Even if it wasn’t always the most graceful or literary, it seemed emotionally exact.

When Joe returned from Germany he said that he was going to move there. I asked him about his post, and he believed he might find work in his field in Germany, and if he didn’t then he could always work in an expat bar or cafe, do anything until Hanna finished her research and maybe they could try and find work in Britain or the States. He knew he couldn’t keep working in the same department as Jill. Did he love Hanna, I asked. It’s like a waltz, he said, and yet I couldn’t help but conjure up an image of my own: Jill sitting there, wall-flowered, in the flat that she must now get used to occupying alone. I almost cried thinking of her, though I had never become remotely tearful when thinking of Susan, nor of Alice in New York. But as Joe and I parted, as he announced he might not have time to see me again before he would leave, the image of Jill wandering helplessly around her flat was matched by another of Joe and Hanna freshly decorating theirs, moving around the apartment as though, despite every action being practical, from putting up shelves, to painting the walls, it was contained by the gesture of love. I was strangely moved and removed; my own life curiously irrelevant in that moment next to the lives of others.


©Tony McKibbin