One afternoon a couple of months after splitting up with his girlfriend he was feeling especially incapable of recovering from the loss that was so unexpected and yet utterly deserved. Every night he would go to bed not so much unable to sleep, but knowing that he would wake up unable to function. Each evening after coming back from a job that wasn’t remotely stimulating him, he would turn on the computer and look through the many photos that she would take of their time together. However, it wasn’t until that afternoon where he opened the last attachment which she sent him that he started to make sense of their parting.
He came across the pictures almost accidentally; he had of course read her final e-mail, the e-mail she sent the morning that they split up, but he had never before that afternoon looked at the pictures, and did so only after making some decisions that were supposed to help him recover from the loss. As he thought about how much he was hurt by the situation, and of how few friends he felt he could talk to about it, so he thought he would whittle down his contacts to only essential people, and also remove the numerous e-mails that left him with fifteen hundred that he hadn’t deleted, some of which he hadn’t even checked.
However, as he was doing so, he noticed the one from Maya a couple of months earlier, and looked at it again, while also opening the attachment enclosed. In it were around thirty pictures, including the six to which he would keep returning.
They were all taken in Trieste where they had stayed for a couple of days. Maya and Michael had flown into Madrid from London and hired a car; then they travelled north through Spain, across the South of France and into Italy, before intending to fly back to London from Trieste. They had been together for five years, had talked about where they were going, decided neither of them really knew, took a month off from their respective and un-involving jobs, and decided to do the trip. They wanted to do it as cheaply as possible, though their jobs paid well enough, thinking that maybe after the trip they would give them up altogether. In Trieste they had stayed in a youth hostel, where the dorms were single sex. That neither of them protested or seemed put-out would be retrospectively significant. It was the first night in five years they hadn’t slept together; no matter if in London they had separate flats. The next evening as they watched the sun set, Michael said to her that maybe they should see the dorm separation as a sign: that perhaps they should part. He didn’t know where this suggestion came from, had no idea a moment before that he was likely to say it, and it seemed all the more horribly absurd in that they both sat there, with their sunglasses on, looking up at the sun. After a minute or so she got up and took some more pictures, then returned to the hostel, and presumably her dorm bed. The next morning she was gone. Michael had no idea where she went, but when he arrived at the airport at midday for their two o’clock flight back to London she was not at the airport, and still wasn’t there when he boarded the plane.
When he returned to the small Swiss Cottage ex-council flat his single mum had bought and left to Michael after she died, he wondered if Maya had returned to the flat she shared with several others in Camden. They had never lived together; with Michael always claiming his flat was too small, though that wasn’t really true: it had two bedrooms, even though he used one as a dark room for his own photographic work. Now that he worked mainly in digital, there would have been plenty space, and he had long considered selling his old cameras and equipment. She would occasionally allude to this wish, and her own desire that they live together, but he always said maybe in the near future. Yet they would still sleep together every night; usually at his, sometimes at hers.
They both knew that Michael’s procrastination was eroding their love, and that was why he thought she suggested several time over the last year that they take time off. Michael worked in advertising: taking lots of pictures of glazed foods was usually how he described it to people. She worked as a director on a couple of TV shows that were very popular, but also created great stress. She would work sometimes fourteen hours a day on a programme she nicknamed glazed television; a comment that came to her once at a party where after Michael told someone what he did, she said what her job happened to be.
It was as though their own lives had been glazed over also, with little in their trip releasing them from the feeling of remoteness from each other. He had assumed the pictures that he looked at that were to become so revealing were of no more significance than all the others that she had sent to him during their time together. Yet when he went through them that afternoon, he saw they perhaps did have a story to tell; and maybe some of the other photos also.
In the six pictures all taken a couple of hours before they watched the sun setting, he noticed that in three of them she seemed to be not with Michael in the picture but looking out to the person taking it. In the other three which he took of her; she was watching something off to the side. He tried to recall who might have been on the edge of the photo; and it occurred to him it was almost certainly the person who moments before had taken the other three pictures.
The next day he had to wake early to do another glazed food shoot. All through the set-ups Michael could think only of the photos taken in Trieste. As he took picture after picture of the fruit, vegetables, lasagnes, pizzas and spaghetti dishes for an Italian food firm, he recalled the dishes that they had eaten during those few days, trapped in memory as the food here was varnished into immortality. But his own mortality felt horribly present, time pressed upon him like he was encased in a coffin where all he could do was await for someone to come and release him from it. He felt his happiness had no agency; time dawdled as he waited for Maya to return and release him from this temporal suffocation.
That night, when he got back, he phoned for the second time Maya’s old flat. He had talked to one of her flatmate’s about a week after he had returned from Trieste, asking if they had heard from her. They hadn’t, but her rent was due in a couple of weeks’ time: if she wasn’t in touch by then they would rent her room. When he phoned he asked if they had heard from her, and the flatmate who answered said that they hadn’t, but she was still paying her rent into the bank.
After the phone-call he looked again at the pictures, trying to read into them any possible motive for her action, while beginning to acknowledge the comment he made that would be reason enough for anyone to leave. Why had he made it; was it an attempt to try and test her feelings for him? She knew he didn’t want children; knew that he would often talk about spending time alone; knew that they slept together each night because it was what she wanted and he accepted under duress: as a means with which to stay together but still live alone.
Over the rest of that evening he looked through all the pictures they took during this trip, and pieced together what he could only call a catalogue of resentfulness, which he thought might help explain the comment he made the night before she left. Often Maya would take pictures of them by pushing them close together and holding the camera a couple of feet away. In a number of the pictures he looked like he wanted to wrestle free from her hugs, and in a number of others she looked like she wanted to kiss him but there was nothing in his body language that looked as if he was amenable to it.
Maya was born in Britain but her parents were Italian, and in all the years they were together he knew that the affection he offered was somehow unsatisfactory; that she would often say what she wanted was at least the same amount of human warmth she would get at home. Michael would hug her she would say as if he had bought her a gift: it was a treat, where she wanted and needed affection as necessarily as she needed food and drink. She would use the idiom that he was starved of affection in childhood as if it were literal. Michael was, she insisted emotionally malnourished, but in those first three or four years she would try and feed him, hoping eventually he would need affection as much as she needed it. Looking at the photos of the trip, it was clear that he was still resisting, still unable to feel that need for warmth. “Kiss me”, he could hear her saying as she hugged him and took another picture.
Yet as he looked at the pictures, Michael also saw that there was a love in his eyes that never quite made it through his body. Much of the affection between them was in their glances, as he would often look at her across the room during a party and smile; her eyes and his carrying a secret message of agreement about the person either of them were talking to, and whom he knew they would later gossip about in a benign way when lying in bed together. It was his nature he supposed to be verbal and visual, to talk and to look. Perhaps this is the very reason why he would dwell so much on the photos: the visual becoming language as he thought about their permutations.
Over the next few weeks he looked at those few pictures most nights, but it wasn’t until he got a call from Maya’s parents that he felt Maya was alive to him again, no matter if what her parents said was hardly easy to hear. Maya’s parents had moved back to Italy several years before, selling the Italian bookshop they owned in London, and buying a cottage near Florence. Michael and Maya hadn’t visited them during their trip and it may seem unusual that he didn’t think much about it then, but Michael had thought a lot about it since. Was this always going to be a final trip for Maya: had she decided to leave him even before they left Britain? Her mother said they had received a postcard that was from Morocco; she said she was okay and that her mother should give him a ring saying that she was alive and very well. Her mother stopped suddenly, as though other things were mentioned on the postcard but that she chose not to say what they were. He asked her was that all Maya had said, and her mother replied that was all that happened to be relevant to Michael.
He looked again at the pictures, looked again at the six he had seen many times before, but also at the others, and noticed in several of them there was, if his memory was correct, the person who had taken those pictures of the pair of them. In several pictures that Maya seemed to have taken of Michael, he noticed in the background the person who had taken the pictures of Michael and Maya together. He couldn’t quite make him out, but zoomed in to see more clearly. Was this the man she was perhaps in Morocco with now?
A friend and fellow photographer once said to Michael that they should ignore for the moment all interest in epiphenomena except in relation to love. It is here where we understand best the edge of ourselves, where in most areas of our lives we can work dead centre. Michael had asked him to say more, and he explained that a few years earlier he was in a relationship with a woman whom he loved but couldn’t begin to understand, could never when talking to a third party give justification for her motives and her behaviour, but believed he could second guess much of what she did. Ben said he met her one afternoon at a photographic reception, where she was working as a waitress. He was at the time in his early thirties, mainly doing fashion shoots and asked if she would like him to take some photos; she could send them to some agencies afterwards if she liked. They met a few days later and this young woman in her early twenties had one of the most photogenic faces he had ever seen in relation to the beauty she didn’t quite possess. She could seem almost plain walking down a street, he believed, but with a little make up and the right lighting, she became a beauty.
Ben saw her for around six months, and during that time she frustrated him like a puzzle he could not solve, but she was someone who constantly presented herself as one. She would ask him whether he thought she loved him, saying that she would often think of other men, but that the only one she could imagine being with in the future was him. What did he make of that, she would say. On another occasion after they had made love she mentioned reading somewhere that most couples when having sex with their partners think of someone else. She didn’t say she had been thinking of another man while they were having sex, and he didn’t dare ask. During those six months Ben would find himself asking not so much questions; more feeling suspended between anxiety and enquiry. He felt everything she said and everything she did was a half-truth, and he didn’t believe this was because she lied – that she was a stable person telling fibs – more that her entire existence was a half-truth. There are certain people, Ben reckoned, who are driven by forces much stronger than the social and psychological that ground most of us, and even some of us, like Ben in that situation, felt the social and psychological were weak next to his desire for what he called this fragmented figment, this epiphenomenal presence. Michael asked how they broke up. He said they didn’t – that the verb Michael used was too strong and categorical for what happened. She disappeared, he said, leaving him for another year with even more half questions than those he had whilst they were seeing each other.
Ben told Michael this story several years before, at a time when Michael’s own relationship with Maya was secure. Ben was only ever a casual friend, and they never discussed his ex thereafter, but it was a couple of days after receiving the call from Maya’s parents that Michael thought he would ring him.
They met up one late afternoon in a café in Camden and after initially and briefly talking of Maya (they hadn’t met since before Maya and Michael had taken the trip), Michael reminded him of the time they talked about an ex of his, the one who modelled. Michael asked Ben if he ever saw her again. Ben understandably asked why he was thinking of it; saying that actually he had heard not from her but about her. Someone Ben knew had said he saw her at a party in London about a year earlier; that she seemed much more grounded than years previously. She wasn’t so skinny, would meet people’s gaze, and seemed barely to drink at all. Where when Ben was with her she would drink a lot, talk little and usually move from person to person at a party, the person Ben was talking to seemed to be describing someone else entirely.
Perhaps hearing of a young woman’s maturity should have assuaged Michael, but instead it did the opposite. If someone could move from such a state of fluidity to stability, could the same not happen in reverse? Had Maya become a fragmented figment? After Ben and Michael had discussed Ben’s experience, Ben asked Michael what had happened with Maya; to go into more detail than Michael had initially offered. Michael explained that he had very little to say, so little information to offer. But Michael’s feeling was that she had met someone at the end of a holiday they had taken, probably a Moroccan man she met in Trieste, and that now she was with him somewhere in Morocco. He explained why he believed this to be so, and Ben started asking him a few questions about the months leading up to her leaving. Ben was the first person to do so. While Michael had been fascinated by where she had gone, asking people where she might have disappeared to and asking them to hypothesise with him, Ben sensibly asked him not to throw himself into her future, but examine the past.
With Ben’s probing, Michael explained that she had talked of being frustrated in her work and in her life, felt that somehow the TV shows were damaging her body and her mind: stressing her physically with the long hours and the bad diet; and giving her almost no time to read and to think. Michael recalled when speaking to Ben that a few months before they had parted she was working on a TV show and one day she walked off the set and told the assistant to take over. She walked for about five hours that day, stopping off somewhere for lunch, and after it ordered a coffee. While drinking it, Maya remembered that she had in her bag a book she started reading more than a month earlier, and hadn’t read more than a few pages. She sat for two and a half hours reading the book, before the next day going back to the same café and finishing off the rest of it. On both days she let the assistant do most of the directing, saying she wasn’t in the best condition to give orders.
Michael said to Ben that maybe she walked out on him as she walked out on her work; that he was another hassle in her life that she needed to escape. Those two days off the set were perhaps a sort of reconnaissance mission, a move towards finding a new existence. Michael talked to Ben for a couple of hours and while doing so accessed all sorts of thoughts and feelings he hadn’t considered for a very long time. He talked a bit about relationships, about his inability ever to talk to a woman as he had communicated to a number of men. He said something about reading Women in Love years ago and mused over whether there could be any comprehension at all between the sexes. He wondered whether there can only be biological understanding; that it all rests on reproduction.
When they parted, he stayed in the bar for a little longer, watching Ben leave. He saw a man, like himself, in his late thirties, childless. How many women over the years had they deprived of children; how many times had they tried to please a woman sexually and failed to understand her desire to reproduce? Michael remembered only a month or two after Maya and he were together that they went to see a film where the characters couldn’t have a child, and Michael said that he never thought he wanted one. She looked at him with a look he never quite comprehended, but while they occasionally discussed friends having children, they never talked of having any of their own.
Later that evening Michael went back not only to the photos of the trip, but also others from previous trips they had taken. He looked through hundreds to find whether he could read in them areas of dissatisfaction, and was surprised to find in many of them a look of longing he had never noticed before, and one especially evident in the pictures where there were children. Did she really want kids, and did they not talk about this because he insisted he wouldn’t want them? The children in the pictures were usually his cousin’s, or those of friends of theirs. After seeing some of the photos from a Christmas a couple of years before at his cousin’s in Edinburgh, Michael tried to remember an argument on the way back down in the car. It was perhaps the biggest they had ever had, yet seemed predicated on so little.
During the three or four days at his cousin’s Michael recalled her playing a lot with the children, changing the nappy of the youngest one, and that she seemed slightly despondent as they left, but in the first half of the journey they talked a bit about the projects they were returning to do, and Maya mentioned that she had the chance to do a show that would be more challenging and interesting. She needed something to change in her life. It was shortly after this comment where Michael took a right turn in the car and she said that he should have taken a left, and he said he thought he knew what he was doing, and she said she wasn’t so sure. Michael asked what she meant by that, feeling it referred to a bigger issue, and a huge argument followed.
They had barely resolved it when they arrived back in London, but that didn’t mean they worked it out after that either. Michael suspected they never worked it out until she walked out of the hostel that morning and never came back. He again looked at the pictures from Trieste, and again at the photos of the man he now assumed was Moroccan. He wondered how many men she may have looked at in recent years, how many people might have been prospectively figures for whom she may have wished to take out her resentment, and how many of these men she might have seen as the father of a child he was not willing to give her. After looking yet again at these pictures he started thinking about the first few months they were together, how he would talk about wishing not to have kids so they could stay creative; and realizing that by the end they were neither doing interesting work nor had they any children.
About a week after talking with Ben about his past with Maya, Michael took a train up to Edinburgh and visited his cousin, with whom he had always been close, her husband and the kids. It was the first time that he had visited them since the trip, and felt a warmth going through their front door; hearing one of the kids shouting in a bedroom upstairs, another yelling that it must be Michael, and the third toddling up to him as he passed through the hall. His cousin was in the kitchen baking some scones, her hands covered in flour that she wiped off on her apron. Though they had talked on a few occasions on the phone since Maya left, it was the first time they had seen each other. As she hugged him he was close to tears, perhaps only halted by his cousin’s eldest son coming down the stair and noticing that Michael had hand marks made by the flour on his back. During the visit he was both the most and least fragile that he had felt in months; he was frequently close to tears but even more often calmed by their presence. He intended to stay for a few days, but ended up staying for ten.
Several times Michael and his cousin would go for walks round Arthur’s Seat and Blackford Hill when the elder children were at school and the youngest playing with the neighbour’s child. They talked a lot about Maya on these walks, and on the first of them Michael asked his cousin about the times when Maya and Michael would visit; whether Maya had ever really talked to her. She said they would chat, of course, but they only had an intense discussion once, and it was indeed the visit where, Michael realised, Michael and Maya had the argument on the way back down the road. His cousin told Michael about the conversation and said quite aptly it took place two years before on a sunny day like the one on which they were having their discussion. As they walked up by the observatory, across the hills that afforded a very different view from the one from Arthur’s Seat, and down by the path and brook that lead out onto Morningside, so his cousin told him what she remembered Maya saying that day. Maya believed there was this space inside her that was becoming a vacuum of longing; a space that she didn’t know how to fill, and wondered whether it was a yearning for a child. Her stomach felt empty all the time, as if it needed to be filled by another life. Michael’s cousin asked her whether she had ever talked to him about it, and she said that she hadn’t. He understands the world differently, Maya had said; he never seems to feel the vacuum in anything. He seems to believe everything can be filled with things; not really with love.
Michael asked his cousin if Maya elaborated, and she said not really, but Maya asked her what it felt like being a mother. His cousin said simply that the world was monochrome before the kids and technicolor after it. Things had purpose before the children, but meaning after them. She must really have loved you, his cousin said, to stay so long with this feeling in her body. His cousin said this as they were looking across Edinburgh from Blackford Hill, and as he took a seat on one of the benches, he sat down and sobbed. It was the first time he had cried since Maya had left. His cousin consoled him and said that maybe for all his soul-searching in recent months this was what he really needed to know. You’ve always wanted to understand women, she said, thinking back to other girlfriends Michael had in the past, but sometimes they simply want to be loved; and there is no greater expression of that than sharing a child with them.
Michael had often found his cousin’s commonplaces and platitudes banal, but this was one that he felt he couldn’t any longer deny, though in half a dozen relationships over the last fifteen years he would always try and rationalise any partner’s unhappiness – just as that day in the car down south he remembered saying to Maya that she would be happy with a more creative job. Sometimes, he thought, the most hurting goes on in the place of memory where the event was somehow incomplete: a thought on one person’s mind that was never expressed and that one can only understand retrospectively.
After he got back down to London he phoned Maya’s parents and said that he was taking three months off work to travel around Europe. Michael said that sometime during the trip he would like to visit them; that he needed to talk to them about Maya. Her mother said that she was worried about Maya also: that Maya phoned every couple of weeks to say that she was fine, but whenever she asked where Maya was, she would never divulge the place. Her mother then said she knew Michael really loved her, and she knew Maya had very much loved him, but she was not sure if Michael ever listened to her. When he got off the phone he cried again, and knew what her mother meant. Maya and Michael could talk for many hours, could explore and explain much that they felt about art, film, literature. But they never talked of the future, never idly planned anything more than a holiday. But did he ever really understand her needs; her desire to live with him, her desire to have a family?
Over those three months of travelling he would meet many people, and he would often ask the older ones (in their thirties, forties and fifties) why they would travel. He wanted to know whether they were living or escaping a full life. Sometimes Michael would talk with them late into the night in a hostel in the South of Spain, a small pension in Istanbul, at someone’s house in Bosnia where rooms were rented. Some of the people he talked to were escaping a relationship, others were free from a marriage; still others were searching for a partner. One person he met in Istanbul was in her late thirties, around his own age, and Sandra said she wanted to find her soul mate. It is a term Michael would never have used, and never once thought of Maya in this way. Perhaps he would have assumed it too New Age, too abstract and too empty of any meaning, yet when this woman mentioned it he realised that whatever Maya meant to Michael it was based on a feeling of having lost something essential in him. Had she lost something essential in her also, he wondered?
That evening Sandra and Michael ate together in a restaurant near Taksim square, and there she explained to him that she was travelling to find a soul mate that she had lost about three years before. She said that they had been together for two years and had tried to live in Paris where he was from. She was from London, she said, but had met Christophe in a town in the south of France called Montpellier. She was studying French and Christophe was her teacher for the summer. After the course she moved into his small apartment in Paris and got a job in a café whose customers were mainly tourists. Though the apartment was tiny, they rarely felt in each other’s way, and had even worked out a routine that made them feel comfortable in each other’s company by making sure they weren’t always in the flat at the same time. He would teach in the language school along from his flat most mornings, and she would usually work in the nearby café in the afternoons, and in the evenings they would usually be in the flat together, or going for walks, to the cinema or to a bar. It was a great two years but what she could only call an imp of perversity destroyed it.
One afternoon in the bar she started talking with a fellow Londoner passing through Paris and he asked her out that evening for a drink. She knew Christophe was going to see a film with an ex-girlfriend, and she knew that this ex was now a friend, that there was no sexual connection between them anymore, and that anyway she had a man of her own. Yet that day she decided that if Christophe could go and see another woman, then why shouldn’t she have a drink with another man?
By around midnight she was quite drunk and slept with the Londoner over at an apartment of a friend’s of his. The next morning she went back to Christophe’s flat around lunchtime. He had obviously shortly before arrived home from teaching, and all her clothes were packed in her two suitcases and they were sitting on the couch. She told him what had happened, said rather pathetically that maybe she felt jealous that he was spending time with an ex-girlfriend, and asked him to forgive her. He said he couldn’t, though he loved her, and perhaps he might be able to forgive sometime in the future. But he needed to protect a feeling inside himself, and that she had to leave.
She returned to London immediately, phoning the bar to say that she had to go back to England and didn’t know when she would return, and realised that again she was acting irresponsibly. Over the next few months she would occasionally phone Christophe but would only ever get his answering machine. Yet a few months later she returned to Paris and typed in the security code and entered the building. She walked up to the top floor flat with her heart pounding partly because of the many steps but chiefly because she wondered how Christophe would receive her. She knocked on the door and a woman in her early twenties answered it. At first she assumed this was Christophe’s new girlfriend, but when she asked where he was, the girl replied that he had vacated the flat and that he had gone travelling.
Later that day she met up with a mutual friend of theirs and asked if he knew where Christophe had gone. The friend said that he was travelling indefinitely and without much purpose beyond finding places where he could teach English and French. The friend admitted Christophe was doing so because he could not get over her. Sandra then said to me she had been travelling ever since; not really sure whether she was hoping to find Christophe again, or to find someone who might be the equal of him.
Michael then told her his story, and reckoned they should travel together for a while. He asked her how she financed her travelling. She said with money left by her late parents, and by teaching English whenever she could find the work. They travelled together for three months, passing back through Europe from Istanbul. They got a long train from the Turkish capital to Belgrade, stayed for a couple of weeks, and then another two in Zagreb and a month in Ljubljana. They became lovers, but could not fall in love, as if constantly aware of the mutual loss they were assuaging. Michael never thought of Maya when they were sexually intimate, but he would wake each morning thinking not of the woman beside him but of his own lost love, and assumed Sandra was doing likewise. When Sandra and Michael looked into each other’s eyes as they woke they could not fool themselves that we were only looking at each other, but also at the loss in the other person’s face.
They said goodbye at Ljubljana bus station as he took the bus to Trieste, intending to go again to the youth hostel that Maya and Michael stayed in the night before she left. Afterwards he would go on to Tuscany to visit Maya’s parents. Sandra and Michael parted with a long hug and a lasting kiss, a kiss that lasted long after its sensory impact, and one Michael thought about all the way back to Trieste. As he walked around the town, as he stayed the night in the hostel, as he sat where Maya and Michael had watched the sunset, so he realised he was thinking barely of Maya at all, but instead of Sandra. He wished not that he could return to that moment with Maya and retract his words, but be here with Sandra offering the opposite of what he had said to Maya. He wondered though whether this was a temporary feeling, and stopped himself from e-mailing Sandra that night and asking her to meet him in Trieste. Instead he awoke early the next day and went on to Tuscany, arriving at Maya’s parents’ small villa in the late afternoon. He had emailed them a few days previously to say when he would be arriving, and they welcomed him less as a prospective son-in-law than as someone they knew who had suffered a loss. Over dinner they explained where Maya was; that she was living in Morocco with a man she loved and that she was several months’ pregnant. Michael was surprised at the equanimity with which he took the news, and before going to bed he asked if he could use the internet. He wanted to look again at the pictures Maya had attached in that final e-mail, wanted to see if he felt anything as he looked at them, knowing that the Arabic man in the photos was almost certainly the one who would be the father of the child that she for so long wanted.
As Michael opened his account, however, he saw there was an e-mail from Sandra. There was an attachment, and inside it was a slide show of photos from their last few days in Ljubljana. In the photos he could see they were looking at each other not as two people assuaging a loss, but as a couple falling in love. The e-mail simply said that she was missing him already, and after he replied, saying that he was missing her also, he forgot to open the old attachment from Maya altogether.