I have often heard it said that we need to internalise our value system so that we respond to moral conundrums like adults and not like children, but I once knew someone who said that she came from a nation of cheats: part of their lack of neurosis, in fact, was that they refused to internalise morality and usually expected it to be externally applied.
Sandra had been living outside her home country for several years, and realised that the people in the parts of Europe in which she had been staying – in Germany, in France and especially in England – were more honest and consistent than the people she knew back home, but she wondered whether part of the problem with many of the people she would meet in the countries she had been living in, were that they had internalised so many imperatives, so many behavioural demands, that they anticipated life more than they lived it.
Sandra said this to me one day when insisting that she was becoming a little bored with the English boyfriend she had been seeing for the last year, and yet she didn’t want to leave him: she merely wanted to cheat on him. As we were sitting downstairs in a Costa Coffee shop in Marchmont Street in London, I looked around the empty basement and wondered what other British people would have said if they had heard her. But she knew that she could speak like this to me because I wasn’t really British: though I was born in London and brought up on the West Coast of Scotland, she knew I was only superficially involved in British life. My job was teaching foreigners English, I had no girlfriend and no children, and my parents she knew had died when I was twelve. I had always felt estranged from British culture, yet I had never travelled anywhere else, and had no sexual entanglements either. I was someone who lived for friendship and art, for conversation and reading especially, and maybe this unusual life made it easy for Sandra to talk to me as though I was not part of the value systems she believed she was caught between: the British decency and her own country’s exuberant indecency. Though she could have seen me as even more passionless than most British people, with my celibate, un-peripatetic existence; instead she seemed to see me completely outside of life itself, and thus a good person to talk to about her own.
I had met Sandra not through the classes I taught but through an ad she had answered. I offered private lessons through ads I would put up in various cafes and shops around the area, an area of London I was lucky enough to live in through having had for years a rent controlled flat; the very council flat my parents had lived in before they died, and where I had, more or less, remained while an aunt looked after me. I suspect she did so not really out of love but out of convenience: for five years until I finished school she stayed with me in the two-bedroom flat, sometimes going off for a month or two travelling, but at least impressing upon the social workers that I was living with a guardian. She didn’t so much look after me as allow herself a regular base when coming back to the country, and when I was seventeen she stopped looking after me only partly because I was old enough to look after myself, but also because she met someone from the very country Sandra was from and went off to live there.
The coffee shop Sandra and I were sitting in was the one where I usually tutored people: during the week in the afternoon it was often quiet, and there was a patio out the front, below the street, where the nicotine afflicted could smoke their cigarettes. Sandra, after telling me she wanted to cheat on her boyfriend, asked if we could sit at a table outside for a few minutes while she had a fag.
We left the intermediate language book we were working through, took our coffees and she her cigarettes and lighter, and stepped outside. I sometimes thought I might usefully describe myself as a moral revenant, someone who would accept in people behaviour and attitudes that others would disapprove of actively or passively. I knew friends and acquaintances who thought passively that smoking was a disgusting habit, and actively would have stayed inside when someone went out to have a smoke. I would accept that people who wanted to smoke were entitled to do so, and I was content to be around smokers and cared little for the arguments on passive smoking. As Sandra sat their drawing deeply on her cigarette, she said that most of her British friends would at that moment have been looking at her disapprovingly, already horrified by her comment concerning her boyfriend. Why, she asked, did I seem so un-judgemental. People in her own country might not have been very moral, but they were will still frequently quick to judge and judged to the quick. They could reduce a person’s character to rubble with a couple of caustic blows, and one reason why she left the country was because of the hypocrisy of so many of its citizens. Yet she also insisted that this judgement wasn’t at all like that of the British people she knew. In her country it was childishly judgemental: friends, family and acquaintances would judge you from such a personal position, from so un-thought through a stance, that it felt like everybody was in a glass house and everybody threw stones at already badly smashed windows. Sandra often talked in metaphors and similes, doing rough translations into English as the thought came to her in her own language. In Britain, though, none of the windows were broken, she thought, and the stones thrown had the moral absolutism of a stoning.
As we took our coffees back inside she said what she found interesting was that I seemed someone who was neither judging her as someone in her own country would, nor as most people here would. Sandra added that I was the only person that she had said anything to about her desire to cheat on her boyfriend, and she would proceed to tell me what had happened thus far, but first of all she needed to use the bathroom.
While she was away, I thought about all the others who had told me details of their life they had offered to no one else, wondered why this happened to be so, and so while it wasn’t the first time it had occurred to me, in those few minutes while Sandra was away, I think I managed to encapsulate it.
I reckoned that what many people did was offer moral judgement not especially from a position of disinterest, but hypothetical interest – which wasn’t quite the same as interest. Between disinterest and interest lay the hypothetical: a possible interest. The difference perhaps between people from Sandra’s own country and most people here, was the degree of hypothetical removal. In Sandra’s country most people seemed much closer to the action than they were in England, so their rush to judgement contained a mixture of envy and morality. Except where in Sandra’s country it was that envy was more prominent than morality, so if someone disapproved of an affair it was that they also envied the fact that someone else was having one, and in its absence replaced it with an immediate judgement: it is wrong, but without quite saying they wouldn’t want to do exactly what their friend was doing. In England, the morality was stronger than the envy, and so the judgment would be deeper, more objectified, yet still I believed there was probably envy driving it, but an envy so contained not only by circumstance, as was maybe more obviously the case in Sandra’s country where she claimed given half a chance a partner would cheat, it was also contained by a much stronger imperative that it was fundamentally wrong.
What I suspect friends and acquaintances saw in me was that I did not quite possess this hypothetical dimension; that I was so far removed from a sexual life that I could not envy their actions, and thus any judgement would be offered with greater objectivity. At least that is what I thought as Sandra came out of the ladies’ room and asked if I was ready for her story. What I noticed however as she sat down was that she had put on lipstick and mascara whilst in the bathroom, as if ready to find a lover as soon as she left the café.
When I commented on the make up she said that indeed she was going to meet the man who might become her lover, and proceeded to tell me how they had met. She said it was several weeks ago at the cinema where she was watching a film with a couple of her female friends, a film that Brian, her English boyfriend did not want to see. It was a film at a cinema along the road from where we were sitting, a cinema known for showing international films deemed of a high quality: a cinema Brian insisted he wouldn’t be seen dead in. It was I supposed an idiomatic phrase Sandra was using that she got from her boyfriend, like perhaps many of the others that she used, but this one seemed in this instance both a direct quote and a deliberate revelation of his sensibility. After the film, Sandra and her friends came to the very café we were sitting in at that moment, and a few minutes later a man of about her own age, possibly several years older, came in, ordered a coffee and started to read a book. Sandra had earlier noticed him going into the film on his own, and wondered who this person might be: someone who was not only happy being seen alive at the film in his own company, but who was also afterwards content it appeared to go and read in a café on his own also. A couple of times she looked across at him, as much out of curiosity as attraction, and on the second occasion he looked back and smiled. As Sandra and her friends left the café an hour later, while he was still reading his book, she did something she had never done before: she left the waitress with her mobile phone number written on a scrap of paper and asked her to hand it to the man sitting reading in the corner.
She didn’t quite know why she did it. There were other men over the years she had found equally attractive, and he wasn’t the first person she saw reading alone in a café. But it was as though Brian’s comment about the cinema, the man’s willingness to watch the film on his own, and then to read in a café afterwards, seemed like Brian had created his antithesis, and Sandra liked the idea of a man who was actively defying her boyfriend’s notion of what a man ought to be and ought to do.
As Sandra told me this, I wondered if I was so different from the man she described – less attractive perhaps, but also someone who would go to an art cinema without company, and read alone in a cafe. I wondered also why it is that I could be someone she could sit opposite from, with make-up on, and talk about another person for whom the make-up had been applied, and to somebody, namely me, for whom it obviously was not, no matter certain similarities. I thought about how much of my body language managed to reflect a sexless presence. Now I should say that I had never told anybody about my virginal status, had never confessed to anybody that I had a failed sexual encounter at fifteen that seemed to have influenced my relations with women ever since, but I didn’t need to. Just as my mind seemed to facilitate the thoughts and feelings of others as if they were talking to someone estranged from the world of morality, so it seemed that my body appeared to offer a similar sense of being removed from the daily realities of people’s lives.
Sandra said that the person she was soon to meet had texted her a couple of days after that day in the cafe, and she replied a couple of days after that. She did not do so to keep the person in a state of suspense; no, more that she did not know whether she wanted to cheat on her boyfriend when she first received the text. But over the next forty eight hours as she decided what she would do, she observed her boyfriend’s behaviour more closely than usual. She especially noticed a look of judgement towards others when anybody deviated from the norms expected of them. The night after receiving the text, she was at a dinner party with Brian and a few friends, and there were several moments where she could see Brian was silently judging others. Once the host put on some music that he didn’t like, he frowned but as if to himself; while on another occasion somebody referred to the sweet when she knew he preferred the words dessert or pudding. He found sweet vulgar, just as he no doubt believed the music to be crude and commercial. Later that evening, she asked him why he didn’t say he disliked the music, even why he didn’t like the word sweet. He replied that it wasn’t his place: that he had been invited along to somebody else’s flat and had to suffer the consequences of accepting the invite. She asked him why they went at all, and he replied that some things are too much of a problem to get out of; that we have to accept in life there are many things that we don’t like, but that we must grin and bear. That night as she slept next to Brian but hardly with him, she knew that she was likely to text back this stranger; knew that after a year with Brian she was no longer so enamoured by British politeness.
Before that day I never knew how she and Brian had become a couple, and so I asked her how they had met. Sandra said they first saw each other at a gig given by friends of Brian’s in Stoke Newington. She had read about the gig in the local paper, where there was also an interview with the band where they talked of their influences. Amongst them was a French musician called Pascal Comelade, and whose work she had for a long time loved. So off she went with a couple of friends she had managed to persuade to join her, and afterwards, while she asked the band a few questions about the influence of Comelade, Brian overheard the conversation and announced that this musician they were talking about was a favourite of his also; that he had most of Comelade’s albums, including one that Sandra knew had only been released in a limited edition, and that she had never before heard. He could lend it to her he proposed, as they exchanged numbers. She flirtingly suggested that perhaps he should be wary of letting the album out of his house and that maybe some time she could come round and listen to it.
A few days later he texted her and asked if she would like to meet somewhere for a drink. She agreed, and a couple of days after that, over the weekend, they met. They liked a lot of the same music, liked American independent films, and had read some of the same writers: the differences initially seemed less pronounced than the similarities, and they started going out together. Brian worked as a music teacher but also wrote for a local London newspaper and would often get to see bands. Over the last year Sarah and Brian would go to a gig or a concert most weekends, and so maybe it wasn’t until quite recently that she started to realise that what he wanted was a partner for gigs and sex, but didn’t really much care if they knew each other – knew the other person’s values; their thoughts and feelings. Whenever she wanted to talk about feelings he would quote her a song from Nick Cave where he mentions if it could be said in words we wouldn’t need the music. Yet here we are, she said to me, talking without requiring the music to speak for us. As she said this, I listened to the song that was playing in the café: it was a song I had heard a few times but never knew who sang it. Part of the lyrics concerned someone who couldn’t even tie his own shoe laces after his lover leaves him. I asked her if she knew who was singing: she said Ben Watt. I thought that all these songs I was hearing weren’t talking to me but to people that had experienced the very relationships the songs were talking about. Yet I didn’t feel this with films and books; I believed they were somehow art forms for the unrequited, where music seemed to speak of love and loss so immediately that I always believed they were talking of other people. I then asked Sandra whether Brian really liked books and films, and she believed not especially: that he bought the books and films you would find in shops like Fopp – books and films that added to his cool demeanour.
I knew that at that moment she had little interest in being fair to him; that she wanted to go ahead with an affair that thinking fairly of Brian might intrude upon. But maybe there was no reason to be fair to Brian, and though I had never met him, at that moment I felt like I wanted to judge him too; and that Sandra should have the affair that was awaiting her. It was as though I had created in Brian the opposite of me: that I was someone for whom actual experiences were less real than my hypothetical ones with books and films, and listening to Sandra talking of her feelings.
I told her that she should go ahead and have the affair: it seemed that with Brian she would remain diluted. This affair wouldn’t be so much an infidelity; it would be fidelity to a deeper part of herself. I don’t know why I said this; for usually I wouldn’t be given to offering advice, but it was strangely as though I was jealous of Brian without being able to express that jealousy by trying to persuade Sandra to have an affair with me. I was outside the realm of active feeling, and my comment felt strangely like the sort of remark I would make to myself when watching a film and hoping that a character would best the villain, or get the girl. If such a response to a film was an immature emotion; how much more immature was it in actuality?
I didn’t see Sandra for a week, and during that time I was more despondent than I had been in years. Generally I was happy with my solitude and celibacy, happy that I could each night close my front door and know that I would be undisturbed by nothing before the alarm clock went off. Sure, friends would occasionally call, but I never felt any pressure to talk to them, and they knew that if they got the answering machine I may well have been in but that I was probably absorbed in a film or in a book and would contact them when I was free from my inner thoughts in whatever form they were being received. During that week, though, I couldn’t settle down to anything, and waited for the phone to ring as I would sometimes wait for the baddie to get his comeuppance. What I found curious was this strange sense of suspense that I realised I almost never had in my life; only through reading books and watching films and vicariously following the lives of friends. Yet here I felt as though I was for the first time interactively involved, believed that I hadn’t only listened to Sandra’s story, but was part of the shaping of it. Each evening I would wait for her to phone, and each day that she didn’t my anxiety increased.
Superficially someone might say I was in love, and perhaps I was, but what I believed had happened was that I was anxious over my influence on another person’s life. A decent and predictable psychoanalyst may have insisted my refusal to have any say in the lives of others came from my parents’ disappearance from my own, and that ever since I could not risk emotional engagement for fear of my impact on them if I left; or their impact on me if they did so. I wouldn’t disagree: I have not forgotten how I received the news that they had been murdered while adventurously but hazardously exploring the desert in Morocco, cannot forget how often as a teenager I would go over how they were butchered; animals to a slaughter they were the masters of creating as they left Marrakesh without a guide, determined, they supposedly said, to find their own perspective on the desert. That they did, but they left a son in London, initially looked after by the one remaining grandparent I possessed, and who died less than a year after, perhaps partly out of grief for her only daughter.
Thereafter, brought up by an aunt on my father’s side, I sought the exploration of my feelings without giving or taking very much from what we still insistently call the real world. I seemed not to want ever again real feelings, but only vicarious ones; feelings that I could recover from hours after the film, the book, or the friend’s conversation – not those that would take me years, perhaps many years to get over. However, as Sandra didn’t contact me over the following week also, I felt increasingly not so much jealous as disturbed by this other man I had assumed she had started seeing. Where Brian seemed antithetical to me; this other person who would go to the cinema alone and would read in cafes without the requirement of company, appeared to resemble me in his aloneness but not in his emotional life. Now I’ve often thought one reason why I have been able to withhold judgement in so many situations where others would readily offer it, is because not only have I had little to do with real life, but I have also I suppose created a persona that I thought was different from everybody else’s. My judgement seemed to have no bearing on the reality I was so often presented with, that I felt less implicated than I might in any number of films where I would feel I was entitled to have not so much an opinion, but an emotionally vivid response to the scenes in front of me. Now here I was feeling somehow as though I was also emotionally involved in somebody’s life, and that I had been usurped. When I watched films or read books I never felt that: my role was one of identification – someone else was acting for me, and I lived the situation vicariously. In life I was strangely even more removed; I would often listen to people as though a priest, a person to whom they could come and confess. It appeared for many years as if this was all I needed; a role to play even if there was no role involved, no active dimension to me as I felt almost as invisible as the priest anonymously placed on the other side of the confession booth.
However with Sandra’s confession I no longer felt so disinterested, no longer capable of a benign moral presence, and it was increasingly with trepidation and not only agitation that I waited for her to contact me again. Weeks passed and still she hadn’t been in touch, and the agitation and trepidation increased. I suspected that perhaps Sandra’s new lover was not British, but spoke English well enough for her no longer to require lessons from me. One reason she took lessons. she said, was that I understood the grammatical structure of English; that Brian merely knew the language as a native speaker. Did her new lover also know the structure, and was he now teaching it to her? I was of course creating hypotheses within hypotheses. I didn’t even know whether Sandra was still seeing Brian, was with the new person as a lover or a boyfriend, of whether she met up with him and then didn’t see him again. Now clearly over the years where people have been telling me about their personal lives and their various difficult emotional decisions, I have not been impervious to thinking over the permutations. Never before, though, had I found my feelings being affected by thinking through these confessions, and I noticed that in the process I was unavoidably beginning to judge Sandra.
Over the following weeks though Sandra was often in my head I didn’t at all see her in the vicinity. I would still take the occasional private client to the café on Marchmont Road, sometimes go the cinema nearby, and I often would scan the café or cinema for a sign of her presence. With each non-presence, with each non-phone call, so the judgement increased. I was often tempted to phone her, but on what premise: that she hadn’t asked for further English lessons; that I felt entitled to know the next chapter of her emotional life; that I wanted to tell her I loved her? All premises seemed absurd, and yet was all this not a consequence of my generally absurd existence?
I wondered many times about the idea of internalising a value system that allows us to respond as adults and not as children, but I seemed neither capable of living as freely as Sandra, nor judging as consistently as those northern Europeans she believed behaved so fairly. There I was with neither intense interest in my own life, nor a morally disinterested judgement in other people’s. I felt caught between so many conflicting emotions I wondered sometimes how I managed to teach at all. Where before I had often thought I did not judge because I was above the petty concerns of most people; now I believed I was below them, a child that had probably never absorbed the crisis of his parents’ death and became ethically petrified before Sandra’s emotional kiss of life. The image that came to me again and again was of Sandra coming out of the ladies’ room wearing make-up that was not for me but for her assignation. It wasn’t that this moment invoked the greatest tenderness in me; not at all – it created a feeling of anger, and if I had verbalised that feeling I would have used words like slut, harlot, tart and whore.
It was as if however I was also accessing anger towards my parents that I had never before engaged with, emotions that made me wonder whether they had been as oblivious to my emotional needs as Sandra was that day in the café. How could they go off into the desert in Morocco knowing that they were not only endangering their own lives but risking leaving their son without parents? Where before I would often look at my parents’ pictures and find it strangely aggrandizing that I would always have such a young mother and father, now as I studied them I would see the very selfish attitude I insisted seeing in Sandra.
About six weeks after last seeing Sandra in the café I saw her again. It wasn’t in the café but along the same road at a bookshop. I was standing by the back of the shop near the stairs that led to the basement, also full of books, and I took a couple of steps back so that she couldn’t see me as she came in. I had noticed that she wasn’t alone, but with a man, who could have been Brian, her new lover, or someone else again. However, it didn’t matter who it was, and as they came towards the back of the shop it seemed likely that they too were moving in the direction of the basement. I could not escape, I thought, and instead, took a couple of steps forward, unavoidably blocking the stairs as they came towards me. As Sandra recognized me she smiled apologetically as if about to explain why she hadn’t been in contact, when I looked at her, vaguely at the man she was with, and said that I had nothing at all to say, but that I hoped she was happy – though she hardly deserved it. I said a few other things but I have no idea what they were; and they seemed to come from an undiluted anger and judgement. She looked at me, distraught and close to tears it seemed, and I walked past her and out of the shop.
I never saw Sandra again. Maybe she moved away; maybe she is still in London. Perhaps she is with Brian or with someone else. I have no idea why she didn’t call me again after that day in the café, and I don’t really know why I was so angry with her during those weeks, and why I felt entitled to the outburst in the bookshop. All I can say is that it galvanised me into some sort of emotional reaction, and over the last eighteen months I have started seeing people, started tentatively trying to find ways in which to live my life and not only listen to the lives of others. I still sometimes think of Sandra, and with a strange pain as I remember her face that day in the bookshop. Perhaps over those weeks between the café and the bookshop she knew I was judging her, knew that the best manner in which to kill her confessor was to try and avoid him: that the person who appeared to judge her less than anyone ever had, was suddenly judging her the most. I would like some day to see her again and talk to her of moralities, of knowing that many of us moralise harshly out of personal envy and equally harshly out of social assumption. What she couldn’t see because I couldn’t see it either, was a judgement that came out of feelings so unresolved that the object of my contempt in the bookshop that day didn’t really have a name. Was it Sandra, my parents or myself: was it the man she was with who could have been cheating with her on her boyfriend; or the boyfriend ignorant that he might have been a cuckold? It was a moral conundrum I knew I would never need to resolve out there in the world, in finding out who the person Sandra was with and what had happened. It was one I needed to resolve inside myself, a process, I suspect, that will continue for a good while longer as I wonder about my own values, ones that until I had met Sandra I hadn’t lived by, but ones that allowed me barely to live at all, it seems, as I abided by them.