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A few years back there was very good second-hand book shop here in Edinburgh that was selective in its purchases and careful in its organization. I would go in at least once a week with the intention of buying a book, but also to enjoy the ambience. It was near the top of Leith Walk, and was a basement space that nevertheless led out at the back to a garden where the owner was happy to allow customers to sit and read, offering them tea or coffee, and even laid out a couple of tables for that very purpose. In the winter the tables were placed in a deliberately half empty room to the right of the entrance, and with the fireplace usually glowing with burning wood. In the summer I would buy a book, take a coffee, and sit outside reading the first thirty or forty pages and feel the sun on my face. In the winter I would do the same, enjoying the warmth of the fire on my legs, and allow it to bring a flush to my cheeks. The other rooms off the main book shop space were intimate corners, the sort of spaces perfect for quiet pilfering or a snatched assignation, and it was as though the owner had designed the interior to emphasise the idea of trust: there were so many areas in which people could be out of sight, unseen by the shop owner or an assistant who would occasionally take over when he was elsewhere. I sometimes wondered whether I would go there because it felt like one of the few places in the modern world where you weren’t being watched: whether it happened to be CCTV cameras, stored internet information, or security guards and bouncers, the modern world seemed astonishingly policed. LaidBack Books left you feeling like a citizen rather than a potential criminal.

Yet in all the time I visited the shop, I never had a conversation with the owner. He was always polite, always offered tea or coffee, often suggested I should take a seat in the garden or read by the fire, but he never once commented on the books I bought, or inquired about what I did. The assistants were more given to chat, but they would change every few months. They were usually students making a few pounds before exams became the priority and someone else took over, or travellers taking employment for a few months before moving on. They would be keen to talk, and I was the one more inclined to speak less as I tried to concentrate on my book. It was as if these people often in their early-to-mid twenties had little to say but even less to hide, where I always thought the owner had much to disclose but even more to withhold.

He wasn’t a tall man, looked around forty five, and indicated in his body movements someone who was quietly athletic. I knew that he cycled, but the veins in his forearms indicated a man who perhaps rock-climbed, rowed or did pilates. The latter I ruled out as too sociable an activity. I couldn’t imagine him in a group taking instructions, and thought rock climbing the most likely. He clearly had lost his hair some years earlier, and kept it cropped, but he possessed a head that was compact and smooth, and an attitude in his body language indicating someone who would have kept it short whether folically bereft or not. His body was a tool not a picture, a functional object, not an aesthetic pleasure. This didn’t mean he was unhandsome; merely that he was not on display. There have been plenty second-hand book shop owners I have seen over the many years now that I have been scouring their shops for books where the owner is an object on show, part of the scene and at the centre of it. Matthew’s bookshop seemed to have as its ideal his very absence, and I wondered if this was partly why he had no interest in talking to the customers. While the shop was hospitable it wasn’t convivial: it was a welcoming space but that didn’t quite include a welcoming owner.

Then the shop closed down, and within a couple of months a restaurant replaced it. It served middle-eastern food, had pleasant staff, and appeared family run. In the following years I would go occasionally with a lover or with a friend to be once again in that environment which I found so curiously sustaining. There were now no tables in the garden in the summer, but in winter one could get a table near the open fire that was still in use, and it was as though the restaurant still respected its earlier status as a bookshop. Throughout they had a smattering of shelves with books on them. I once asked the manager where the owner was now; he said he had no idea. He had never met him. I had also on occasion asked the assistants working in the bookshop about Matthew, but they said he never talked about himself


I met Mark four years ago when he joined the English department full-time. I was by then working part-time as an art teacher; employed to teach the students art history and theory rather than the practical side of their craft. I would briskly take them through the history of art from the early days of perspective through to today’s installation work, but would always dawdle over the artists I loved: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Munch, Hopper and Bacon. I also occasionally took the students to local galleries, and sometimes further afield. It was on one of those trips to London where I needed a couple of other teachers to come with me, and Mark offered to come too, saying he would find a third teacher as well. I knew him only from the briefest of chats in the staff room, but there appeared in his remarks always an invitation to talk more, but where time wouldn’t allow for it. One day he asked whether teaching art was a way of making a living, or living. He wished he could have taught English that way: as a means by which to live the pleasures of literature instead of teaching the same texts over and over. He hardly read outside the curriculum, and hardly wrote for himself either he said (he used to write short stories, sometimes published in little magazines) and wished sometimes he could reread the course texts with the rapidity that you can reacquaint yourself with a painting. I said of course we can spend hours looking at a picture if we so wish, but he was right: we didn’t have to, and to glance at a book wasn’t the same as a brief look at a painting. You can’t judge a book by its cover he said, but you can take a painting in that quickly and feel that you have seen it. The bell rang and we had to return to our classes, and there were a few other occasions where conversations were started and then abruptly ended by the intrusion of the bell. They were the only moments in all the time I have been teaching where the frustration lay in the bell going off outside the classroom and not inside it, and I could see in his remark about living for art and not just teaching to make a living out of it, that I was lucky enough to do both.

Our initial discussion was extended on that trip south, and would have been continued further on the way back up had it not been for the presence of the third teacher on the bus: Miss Carmichael. She had joined the school around the same time as me (a couple of years before Mark), and we knew each other well enough to be barely on speaking terms: we had slept together a few times during that first year we were teaching, but she concluded that it was an error of judgement made out of emotional need. She had taken the job in Edinburgh partly to help her end an affair in Newcastle. I was, I surmized, and said, part of her emotional recovery, an antibiotic to clear out her system, nothing so probiotic as a new boyfriend. It was a dig as much as a defence; I knew she was very concerned with her diet, which consisted of live yogurt, brown rice, Kimchi and Kefir and not a lot else. I exaggerated of course, aware of the meals that she cooked on those few occasions I had been to her flat, and knowing that she knew how to season a dish and use seasonal vegetables. My remarks when she ended it were properly petulant. I had few grounds for resentment, but resented her nevertheless.

I don’t think I had ever acted so churlishly in my life, and it was just unfortunate that the person I happened to be so immature with happened to be teaching at the same school. I suspected that she avoided me less because she was angry or irritated; more that she believed I was angry and irritated with myself. I was to find out that was exactly so not long after she started seeing Mark, when Liz and I arranged a meeting to decide whether Mark needed to know about our earlier liaison.


They became friendly on that bus trip and closer still after it. I didn’t feel jealous as I sat a few seats behind them reading through a book I had bought on one of the artists we had seen at the Tate Modern. I’d been with other women since, and the feelings I still had for Liz were only those that rebounded back on to me: a vague feeling of embarrassment. I liked Mark enough to wish that these remarks I had made to her wouldn’t be divulged to him, and so a sense of shame was more evident than jealousy that evening. When Liz and I met up a couple of weeks later to discuss whether she should say anything about our fling, we both agreed that we shouldn’t. I think we both felt embarrassed, if for different reasons. As we sat in a cafe burbling with chat and with the swoosh of the coffee machine, I said what I missed most after we broke up was her flat. She looked at me as if the capacity for insult was still there, but I gazed at her earnestly and said I really meant it, and meant it as a compliment. There aren’t many places in which we feel at home, I said, and her flat, even though she had only moved in two or three months before I’d first visited it, was such a place. I described it to her as we sat there: the mahogany floorboards offset by the white skirtings and walls, the leather settee and brown coffee table, the half-wall of books, the paintings done by friends, the patio doors that led out onto the garden of her basement flat. She said I had a good memory, and I replied that maybe it was muscle memory: is the heart not a muscle also? I smiled and said it was just a joke. I was happy that Mark had found someone he cared about, and happy that she was once again in love. Again I realized I was sounding churlish, as if there was a residue of a resentful self still sticking to the dynamics of our relationship, and my remark sounded like I was still sour in having been no more than temporary emotional relief. But I was happy for them, certainly not in love with Liz, and managed, I think, by the time we had parted, to make clear that my tone was facetiously finding a jocular one to counter that earlier hysterical hyperbole I offered when we had split-up.


During the three years they were together I would often socialize with them. Over this period I had no regular girlfriend, but would meet them occasionally for a drink and on several occasions for a meal at a restaurant. Once I suggested the very restaurant that used to be the bookshop, and as we ate in one of the corners, Liz said she was surprised that in all the time she had been in Edinburgh she had never been to this particular eatery. I didn’t say as the three of us sat awaiting the starter that I had invited her to eat there once before, and that she instead insisted I come round for dinner because she had something to say: it was the day she announced it was over. She was so enamoured of the place now that I wondered, if I had persuaded her to come with me then, whether she would have been enchanted enough to have continued our affair a little longer. I told them of the bookshop, and that I would regularly visit the place as much for its ambience as for the latest purchase I would make.

I also talked over dinner about the owner, one of the few people I had ever met who truly fascinated me: a statement of fact but also I suspect a moment of judgement; that I still couldn’t quite avoid the occasional attack on Liz’s person and in this occasion I perhaps wanted her to know I believed her to be mediocre. She didn’t seem to respond to the remark at all and instead asked me to tell them more about this man. There wasn’t much more to tell I shrugged: he was a mystery who put all his warmth into the shop and none at all into friendship with his customers. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had had no friendships outside the shop also. He appeared like a man happy in his own company, I said, adding that though the phrase is tired, its proper use is probably very rare indeed. How many people are really so happy in their own company I insisted. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and Liz said she didn’t mean to be intrusive, but was I so unhappy with my own. I replied that I was happy in my work, and that was quite a compensation, but no, I couldn’t really claim to be happy in my own company. I added that there were moments when I would finish work on a painting, or finish school and arrive home, and there was an absence in the flat my presence couldn’t quite fill. It was the one time I saw in Liz’s eyes a feeling of compassion and I suppose it lay in the directness of my answer instead of in a direct appeal to her conscience.

We stayed in the restaurant for three hours, and as they came to say they were cashing up, we apologized for not leaving sooner, but the corner was so cosy and the restaurant itself so appealing, we could have stayed all night. The waitress said occasionally a few of them would, closing up and eating and drinking by the fire. She also admitted that the restaurant wasn’t always as busy as it could be, and I regretted that I hadn’t gone more often or recommended it more strongly to others.


Mark and Liz never moved in together, and I knew that most of the time he would stay at her flat rather than Liz staying at his. I had been at Mark’s place on a few occasions and it was a bit like mine: a nest you pragmatically used rather than ostentatiously feathered. The floors were carpeted and stubbornly stained, the walls blank and the curtains clashing with the settee. I know people sometimes think that men like Mark and I are oblivious to our surroundings, that we can’t see that we live in a bit of a midden. It is more that we don’t have the will to do anything about it. I have the will to work obsessively on a painting, sometimes to go for a run, even to go up a mountain in foul weather, but the thought of tidying up, repainting, tearing out carpets and varnishing floorboards exhausts me. My father’s tired, paraphrased line about having a lie down every time he thought of exercise was applicable for me when it came to chores around the house. That the dishes were washed and the washing done were domestic duties enough. I have even sometimes wondered whether people who keep their apartments impeccably tidy aren’t somehow more aware of death than the rest of us. When I’ve flicked through lifestyle magazines at the dentists or the doctors, most of the photographs show the houses beautifully decorated and yet with no one in them. It is as though that is how they should be: occupied not by the owner’s presence (which would create mess) but haunted by their absence. Of course Liz’s flat possessed this quality of absence, this feeling that somehow the place has an existence beyond the owner’s presence. Perhaps messiness is personal, tidiness less so, and yet this creates a certain mystery around the person whose flat you are in. Anyone who comes to my place sees immediately a personal catastrophe, and looks at me as if I needed not only home help but psychiatric help too. But go into the home of someone who is very tidy, and you might wonder where they reside.

So Mark usually went to Liz’s flat, and he admitted to me once that they’d never proposed getting a place together because he was too messy: that she would have had to have seen him getting his own house in order before he had the opportunity to mess up hers. But he never managed to do so, and Liz eventually left him. That might seem like an absurd logical conjunction, but if Liz left me and eventually took up with a man equally domestically dishevelled, the man she left Mark for seemed the epitome of the neat and tidy, and perhaps possessed all the mystery the slovenly Mark and I could never attain.

Mark rang me on a Saturday night during the Easter holidays saying that he really needed to talk: could I go round to his place. It wasn’t too far: he lived in Newington, and I lived in Bruntsfield: a brisk walk through the Meadows would get me there in fifteen minutes. I knocked on the door of his third floor flat and he answered looking like he hadn’t been out all day, hadn’t made it as far as the shower. The flat was even messier than usual, and probably had always been messier than mine, and perhaps I should briefly distinguish between mess, dirt and filth. Mess is where magazines, books and CDs are littered around the apartment; dirt gatherings of dust and stains on the carpet and couch; filth dishes left undone, cigarettes stubs in ashtrays. Usually his flat was messy and a bit dirty; now it was messy, dirty and filthy. He hadn’t washed a dish in more than a week, he admitted; hadn’t done anything since Liz had said they should break-up. With no school to go to, he hadn’t been out except to pick up some groceries from the supermarket, a hundred yards away.


 I asked him about their split, and he said Liz told him at the start of the Easter holidays that they should part, or rather that the parting was categorical. He had told me that since Christmas Liz had been saying she wanted to break-up, but he wouldn’t accept it, and hadn’t told anyone, not even me, about her decision. Yet when they last talked she told him that she was now seeing someone else, and that he would have to accept that it was very much over. At first he wouldn’t believe her, claiming she made up another man to get rid of the one she was with, and so she sat him down and told him about this new figure. If he wouldn’t accept that their relationship was over, then he should be willing to listen to the evidence as to why it happened to be so. I knew Liz could be both tender and brutal, and this was an example of her brutality, as she perhaps believed that she for too long had tried not to end an affair that she remained in much more for Mark’s sake than her own.

She told him that she had fallen in love with this new man, said that he was from Edinburgh, had gone away for a while and was now back. He had been travelling for several years, living in Mexico City, Buenos Aires and then in Sarajevo and Belgrade. He taught English and took photographs and there was to be an exhibition of his work from the Balkans at the Filmhouse, coinciding with a Balkan film festival. He had a flat in the Stockbridge part of the town, a flat that he had sublet, and was staying in another place until he could get his flat back in a couple of months’ time. What was he like, Mark asked, what was this man who had replaced him really like. Liz said that all she knew was that he was a man who had long confused solitude with loneliness, believing that being alone was an act of resilience rather than an act of emotional cowardice and now he wasn’t so sure.

Over the rest of the Easter holidays I saw Mark everyday, and didn’t only help him tidy up the flat, but also insisted he needed to redecorate it. I helped him choose paint, painted the whole apartment with him, and saw that the floors under the carpets were in good condition and phoned someone to come and varnish them. I even persuaded Mark to get rid of his settee and arm chairs and buy new ones. I was surprised at how determined I was to improve Mark’s apartment when I could still barely tidy up my own, but I suppose I couched it in psychological rather than practical terms: I was simply helping a friend. I couldn’t have put the same effort into redecorating my flat because it would have been working on a flat. I could of course work on a painting; the work was mine, it couldn’t exist without me, while the flat did. It was going to be in better or worse condition depending on how well I looked after it, but it didn’t require me.

Did Mark require me? Maybe not as a painting did, but somehow more than a flat demanded, and over the next couple of months I saw him often, and on one of these occasions he told me more about the man Liz was now with. I knew Mark had met her again one evening after school, and she again reiterated that her feelings were for this other man and not for him, and he again asked her why and she again talked about him, as Mark could see that the only way in which he could keep her in his company was if he allowed her to talk about this other person she couldn’t quite get out of her mind. It was masochistic of him of course, but what could he do, and there he was talking to me about him also. As he said that the man used to own a second-hand book shop in the city, as he described him physically (though he’d never seen the man himself), as he told me that when the man was younger he was a well-known rock climber, often seen on magazine covers, I was certain it was the figure who fascinated me years before in the bookshop on Leith. But instead of interrupting Mark, saying I thought I knew who he was describing, I let him continue, unsure whether I was doing so  because I wanted to know still more about the bookshop owner, or even more to hear Mark talk about someone as if he were a character he was fictionally developing, someone who was fascinating enough for his girlfriend to leave him over, and interesting enough for him to want not so much to know more about, but to dwell upon.

Mark knew he wanted to write a story that would capture something of his own pain, but reckoned it was this man and not Mark himself who should be its central character. At a certain moment when he was talking to Liz that evening, he knew he was not only the forlorn ex keen to remain in his ex-girlfriend’s company, but also the writer that he once was, determined to hear further information to fashion a character. Was he perhaps less a masochist than a sadist, he wondered. I said he would probably have to write the story to find out.


 A few weeks afterwards I was at the Filmhouse and noticed that the Balkan film festival was on, and the photographs of Matthew Whitaker were lining the walls of the cafe bar. They were well-composed pictures of buildings, a few of which were still in a state of disrepair so long after the war, but there were no people in any of them, no hint of a person behind the camera either, and they looked more journalistic than artistic. They were perfectly acceptable documents of a city, but inadequate accounts of the personality who happened to take them. They were passable expressions of a self, but hardly expressions of the soul. It made me think again of the bookshop – was that not an adequate expression of the soul, and was Liz’s apartment not likewise capable of this term? We might not believe in the soul anymore, but most people are happy to use the term paradoxically in a material context: people don’t have souls, but places do. I probably think that souls are potentially everywhere and in all things, manifest as a certain type of spiritual order, a neatness that is nevertheless personal, that comes from human consciousness. There are people in their precise dress sense, and buildings in their architectural precision, that nevertheless give no hint of soul, and yet messiness isn’t soulful either. My apartment had none of the feeling that Liz’s had, none of the immaculate conception that was evident in the bookshop. Perhaps soulfulness is the presence of absence. Not the absence of absence, but some hint of a presence that isn’t there, but isn’t not there either. Looking at Matthew’s photographs I saw an absent absence: I saw nothing more than technology at work. It was ironic that I now had his full name at the moment I thought the photographs had no need of one attached.

I never did tell Mark that I had known who Matthew was (just as Mark never knew that Liz and I had been lovers), nor that I had often gone to the bookshop of this man some years before to feel  an ambience that had perhaps drawn Liz to his presence in recent months. Both Mark and Liz when I would see them at school appeared happier than they had been when together, and though they avoided each other where possible, this seemed no more than the awkwardness Liz and I had shared after our brief and insignificant affair: though on this occasion she might have been feeling guilty rather than assuming Mark would be abashed. I never talked about Liz to Mark unless he brought her up, and he would do so only occasionally and in a way that indicated no great feelings, not even hard feelings. That summer we went to the south of Turkey together with a couple of other friends, and Mark had an affair with a woman from Germany, a teacher whom he would visit during the October break. When we returned back to school in August, Liz was no longer there. She handed in her notice, someone said, and we hoped that she was okay.

It would have been during that October holiday, with Mark visiting his lover in Hamburg, that I went for a long walk, knowing that soon the clocks would change and the light in the mid-to-late afternoon disappear. I walked from my flat, down the winding street and all the way past the Filmhouse to Princes Street. I crossed over Dean Bridge and peered over it looking at the still verdant life below that would soon turn brown and then thin out, leaving trees naked through the winter months. I continued into Stockbridge, and then through to the top of Leith Walk. I walked past the restaurant and saw that it was now becoming a cafe bookshop.

I glanced in and could see Matthew and Liz painting and decorating, and saw a small sign on the door saying that it was opening in a couple of weeks. Would I go in when it opened? I suspected not, feeling that,  years ago, when I was a regular visitor, it held for me mystery in the owner’s presence that would be absent now that I knew of him a little and knew his partner well. But I was happily sad that it was opening again, and sure that whenever I would walk along this street in the future I would always feel a slight sense of loss in my stomach as I would look in, and see the past living in the present. I thought also about having once again knowledge unknown to others. Just as I had known Liz before Mark and had a quiet affair that I assumed he knew nothing about, and just as I knew that the man Liz had gone off with was someone I had known long before I knew her, and she had known him, so I thought now of that evening where I played gooseberry to Liz and Mark in a space that was cosily familiar to me, and would, later, become so in a different context for Liz. I felt passing through the city that night like a revenant, someone with secrets that weren’t even his own, but that in the process of thinking about them left me with a sense of quiet, yet soulful, solitude.


©Tony McKibbin