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Presences

1

The first time I saw her I was sitting in the back of the cafe reading a novel. She arrived dressed in a navy blue suit, with the jacket a hugging fit and the skirt equally tight. She had a light frame that suggested any clothes that were not clinging would hang off her body, and, taking off her jacket as she seated herself, I noticed that her beige blouse was unbuttoned to suggest someone playing down the formal aspect of her dress. She was sitting three tables away from me, and would occasionally glance across as I wondered if she was interested in the book I was reading, interested in me, or curious because I was the only other person in the cafe who happened to be alone.

Fifteen minutes after she had arrived someone came into the cafe and scanned it as if looking for someone he had a vague idea of but didn’t quite know. He was also smartly attired, wearing a black suit that may have been hiding a portly aspect, and possessed a looming body mass. He might have been a bouncer, but there was an aspect to his gaze which indicated someone who could have been too easily intimidated: his cheeks were flushed more than ruddy, his skin was smooth and it looked like he needn’t shave every day. As the woman gave a half-wave a look of relief came over his previously anxiously inclined face, and he squeezed his way between two tables and stuck his hand out as the woman offered hers.

2

I would usually read for a couple of hours two or three times a week in this particular cafe. I worked part-time in the national gallery at the bottom of the Mound, and the work mainly consisted of standing there making sure nobody touched the paintings and didn’t make too much noise, but also to guide visitors to certain paintings. I had been in the job for several years since finishing a post-grad in Museum Studies and it paid enough for me to do things like read in cafes, go for long walks around the city, meet up with friends, and even travel a little. I’d been sub-letting for years my father’s council flat along in Dumbiedykes (he had moved to the Outer Hebrides). It was a council estate in the city centre facing out onto Arthur’s Seat, and the rent was around half what I would have had to pay for privately rented property.

My work, I suppose, consists of watching people, and my part-time job gives me plenty time to do more of it when I frequent cafes and go for walks in and around the city. I sometimes think workers shouldn’t be put into professional categories but dispositional ones. Those with a sanctimonious streak can become GPs, right-wing columnists, social workers; those with an impulse for gambling shouldn’t work in a casino; but in finance; people who like animals ought not to work in zoos or become vets, but dog walk and cat sit. I don’t mean to say that all GPs or social workers are self-righteous; more this is where someone with a self-righteous aspect might find their needs met. Perhaps one of the problems is that many get stuck in the wrong profession. They do love people and want to help, but then find themselves frustrated in trying to improve people’s lives, becoming disillusioned and then cynical. After ten years they want the next person who requires their help to be feckless, lazy and stupid. Someone who works in a zoo after ten years no longer loves animals; the best they can manage is to feel sorry for them. If they dog-walked they would be giving the animal exercise; instead they are keeping them in captivity. We wouldn’t expect anybody working in a prison to say they love people; why should someone working in a zoo claim to love animals?

I exaggerate of course, but my point is simply to say that because of the emphasis on professions over dispositions, many are doing the wrong job. But then a profession is an external thing and when we apply for a job we are applying for a situation that is vacant. Wouldn’t it be better if we said disposition vacant, and see how many more suitable candidates would be inclined to apply? Imagine: sadist wanted; dental assistant required. There would be a happy person who might whistle on their way to work. Any job I’ve ever applied for has been for dispositional reasons. For several years after university I worked as a night porter. I find it easy being nocturnal and I like my own company. When the museum post came up I had the idea that I would be a good watcher, and I think too few jobs give us the chance to look at people for any length of time. What is even better is that galleries are often expansive places: you get to see how people move when given a bit of space. In cafes, bars and streets, people frequently adopt a body language restricted by the environment, but those who move well can really have the freedom to do so in a gallery. Watching them is one of the pleasures of the job, sometimes as meaningful to me as looking at Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees in the Impressionist room.

3

I watched the couple in the cafe and wondered whether this was their first meeting and why they were in each other’s company at all. Could it have been an informal interview? This seemed unlikely since they were both quite formally dressed. Could they have been discussing a work problem: they were perhaps in the same department? Were they brother and sister, long since separated; now reunited? Was she a casting agent looking for an actor, and wanted to interview him in various surroundings? I once joked to a friend that I preferred going to cafes alone rather than seeing friends there because with the friend I knew most of their story and all they could do is fill me in with the latest episode; in my own company I could observe complete strangers and give them entire, speculative pasts and presents.

I never quite worked out that day what this couple’s relationship was to each other, but about a week later Anna Ellison came in again, similarly dressed, and ten minutes later was joined by another man who looked a little lost when entered, and smiled gratefully when she offered him a small wave. He was slimmer, less clumsy as he took his seat, and more likely to win a woman over without relying on a hint of pity than the previous man. Where on the first occasion Anna and the man drank coffee and ordered only one, leaving after an hour, this time after the coffee she and her companion ordered a bottle of wine. By the time I left, they were laughing loudly with each other and building up a complicity that suggested it was an online date that had gone right; the previous one having gone wrong.

4

I went home that evening satisfied with my deductive skills and thought about a friend who once asked if I believed in ghosts. I replied I didn’t know, but I sometimes wished I happened to be one. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy people’s company, but I’m not very enthusiastic about many of the elements that make up human contact. I had girlfriends at school, but none since, and I almost always turn down invites that consist of eating with other people. Usually the food they cook isn’t to my liking no matter how fine the ingredients and how good the cook. I eat at regular times; agreeing to a dinner invite is to accept disruption. Usually an hour is killed on crisps and wine, olives and pitta bread. By the time the food has arrived you are usually half-starved from foregoing the food, and half drunk if in foregoing the food you’ve accepted the wine, or famished and bored, waiting for the meal to start if you have foregone both. I sometimes read that the pleasure of eating is the pleasure of company; that eating alone is a sad experience and should be avoided when possible. I am more inclined to think the reverse. Our stomach wants food but the social occasion seems so often to demand delay, as if there is something impolite about offering you food within minutes of arriving at their door.

Yet people interest me, and while I like going for long walks in the countryside, I equally enjoy walking through towns and cities, watching how people act and interact, walk and talk. Just as there are egocentrics who always wish to be the centre of everything, so there are eccentrics like me who want to be at the periphery of events, determined to be aware of situations without feeling at all obliged to be part of them.

5

A few days after what had seemed like a successful date, I saw Ellison again, initially sitting alone, before, after about ten minutes, a man walked in looking a little unsure of himself. He was happy to see her as she waved in his direction and hugged her as she got up to say hello. Dressed in a grey suit that neither fitted him nor suited him, he showed an initial enthusiasm lacking in the previous two apparent dates, and the woman’s response appeared warmer, even slightly parental. Had this been the first time I would have seen her, I’d have assumed she was talking to a younger brother, someone who had recently taken a job in an office for which he was almost entirely, we could say, unsuited. They stayed for about an hour and, perhaps oddly, hugged halfway through their conversation. Yet as they parted, simply shook hands. This time she didn’t leave just after the meeting, but stayed as if taking notes until about forty minutes later another man came in. They didn’t even shake hands as he went to sit down, but about twenty five minutes into their discussion they kissed in a French manner, on each cheek. At another moment not very long before he left, he raised his voice and she laughed, as if mocking his anger and determined to show she wasn’t intimidated. Yet there they were, as he left, shaking hands firmly, as though they had come to an arrangement rather than having ended an argument.

6

For the next couple of months this continued, with Ellison meeting someone in the cafe around twice a week, and with the arrangement similar even if the men changed not only as individuals, but even in terms of style. For a couple of weeks the men she met were more hippie looking, their hair in dreadlocks or long and lank, their trousers wide at the bottom and their shirts made of cheesecloth or linen. Then she appeared to be interviewing hipsters, men with hair shaved at the sides and swept over on top, and a full beard and creeping arm tattoos: I always felt the image made people look like well-fed rednecks. One of the hippies looked as if he wanted to have sex with her in the cafe, at one moment taking hold of her arm and pitter-pattering with his fingers along it, then stealing a kiss from her mouth. One of the hipsters seemed ready to walk out, but Ellison persuaded him otherwise. No matter the tensions that seemed to develop, or the caresses offered or kisses stolen, all the situations ended similarly: with Anna Ellison and the man shaking hands, lightly hugging, or her kissing them on the cheek. I never saw her leaving with any of them.

I was used to watching people of course, and seeing behaviour that would appear mildly inexplicable only because I was seeing but a fragment of the event. When I passed a couple on the street arguing, would see a woman on a step in tears, or witness the aftermath of two cars having pranged into each other, I accepted that events have causes and effects to which I was not privy, and kept moving. But there I was in a cafe where surely after several months the context should have become clear to me. On a couple of occasions I even asked the waitresses what they made of this woman who kept coming in and meeting a different man each time. They admitted they were as intrigued as I happened to be, but didn’t know any more than I did. They could hardly ask her, I supposed. It is one thing to ask someone what they are reading, but quite another to enquire about the people they are sitting with, and so Anna remained, for the moment, a mystery.

7

Not long after I wondered with the waitresses what Anna happened to be doing there, she stopped coming. In the following weeks I would sometimes look up from my book and hope to see her sitting somewhere in the cafe but she never was. I felt the loss of this person whom I had never met and had only regularly seen, and it seemed to invoke in me dissatisfaction I could only describe as wistful – it appeared to me that I felt in her presence and then her absence my own life’s mysteries. I am not so sure if any of us can easily claim to know who we are, but in this void that we all happen to be, we fill it with enough attributes for a person, a self, a being, an identity, whatever we might choose to call it, to come into existence in the eyes of others. Maybe people don’t get married, have children, have careers because they wish to do so, but that they desire to be seen, to be recognised and acknowledged, for others to be able to describe you with ease, and with that ease we feel the comfort of our own identity.

Yet perhaps because I’ve never felt very comfortable with the notion of having an identity, I seek so often in others the presence of their non-being as well. It was as if I was tantalised by this person I didn’t know. Not that I especially wanted to know her but that I wanted to remain in a state of tantalisation. Her absence robbed me of this. Perhaps that was why when the friend once asked if I believed in ghosts I replied that I wished I happened to be one. Contact can never be made but curiosity always fulfilled.

8

A couple of months after Anna’s last appearance I asked if it would be possible to take several months off from work, obviously without pay. My line manager said she could see that in the last few weeks something seemed to have been bothering me, and I asked what she meant. She said I always appeared to be the most attentive of guards, the one who always seemed to know when someone needed help around the gallery, or would see before anybody else a child who was about to trespass into an installation. Lately, though, she noticed that I had been distracted: I was in my head rather than in the world. I knew little of this woman except to have guessed she was around fifty, that others had told me she had two now grown up children, and that her husband ran an independent gallery on the other side of the city. She had been a good boss I had always supposed because she didn’t seem very present, and left people to get on with what they were doing. But as she spoke I knew she was better than that: she didn’t intrude in her staff’s lives, constantly making them aware of her presence; she was instead observing us. How much time did I need off, she asked, and I said about three months. Would four months unpaid leave be enough she wondered. That would be perfect I said, feeling while we talked as though she was one of those people, despite my capacity to describe her succinctly in a couple of lines, who could see that not everyone needed such instant summation.

I knew someone who had recently started working at the gallery who had been looking for a flat and was still, with his girlfriend, living in a hostel until they found anything permanent. I couldn’t promise him that, I said, but if he wanted to cover the rent on my place for four months it was theirs. He agreed instantly, and by the time I left work that day I already had a clear plan in my head.

9

I left Edinburgh ten days later for the entire summer, from May to September. I bought a touring bike, four panniers for the front and rear, and a tent for less than £200 that weighed one kilo and was fourteen inches in length. The sleeping bag that I owned, I was reliably informed, would be fine given the weather conditions I’d be exposed to: I intended to travel through the South of France and Spain. I took the train to London, the Eurostar to Paris and the TGV to Avignon, and from there started cycling south. It isn’t always easy wild camping in France and is deemed illegal, but the shop assistant had said that one reason why the light brown tent he sold me was a popular colour was because people wanted one that could easily blend into its surroundings, making it inconspicuous to anyone who might want to rob you or move you on. The first couple of evenings though I booked into a camping site a mile away from Avignon’s town centre, and the expense of the hostel was worth it when a Welsh couple who had been camping all over France advised me how best to travel around the south camping wild, and also suggested interesting places to visit in Spain.

10

I met them over dinner on my first night, and as we sat at a table outside the camp site restaurant I asked them for how long they had been travelling. They said only for six weeks: they had to go back to work soon. They both taught English as a foreign language and this would be their busiest period coming up. After telling me about great places I could travel to in the south and in Spain, they then talked more personally. Ray and Michelle weren’t married, didn’t have kids, and said they would travel as often as they could. A couple of years ago they had been in Argentina from September until April, working in a language school for the first three months before travelling through Patagonia. Why did they travel, I inquired. It was the sort of question that they hadn’t often been asked by the way they looked at each other before looking back at me. The look was one of bemusement, as if I’d questioned them about what they might think happened to be the meaning of the universe. Perhaps for them it was a similar question. Ray replied that there are questions you very occasionally get asked by people that you have never inquired about yourself, questions that you can’t believe you haven’t asked yourself when someone asks them. Or perhaps it wasn’t that you’ve never asked them, but that nobody else has asked them of you; you’ve never had to work out the why behind them. There is nothing like a stranger throwing a question at you to make you think he said, laughing. Michelle’s laughter seemed more nervous, tentative.

He said that he travelled to see what the world looked like, to see it from beyond the parameters of a TV screen. He was brought up in a mining town that no longer had any mining. He said meaning when he meant mining, and corrected himself immediately, only to add that perhaps it didn’t have any meaning either. He was forty and had been fourteen during the miner’s strike in 1984. His father was a schoolteacher there and so they never went hungry, but some of the kids whose parents were miners looked as though they hadn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks. One kid he knew had been to the dentist early on in the strike and gone back about eight months later. His teeth had started to weaken; his family no longer had milk with their Weetabix but water. The boy told Ray that breakfast was the Weetabix, lunch a watery soup made with lentils and onions, dinner offcuts from the butcher with some potatoes. A luxury would be some digestive biscuits occasionally. Ray didn’t know whether the boy was telling the truth, but he looked like he hadn’t properly eaten since the start of the strike, and when Ray saw him again, about eight years later, he was thinner still, without a job and with a drug habit.

Ray looked at me and out at the trees and listened to the sound of the cicadas as if their presence was the antithesis of all that he had left behind in the Welsh valley, but then shook his head and said he hadn’t at all answered my question. He wanted to see the world, he said, as though it was his political right, a right that meant he could go where he pleased and at the same time witness how others lived so he could understand better what people at home had been deprived of. Obviously he saw people in places where he had travelled – in Mexico, in Morocco, in Turkey – who were living still worse lives, but there was something unique he thought about British poverty, and he sometimes wondered whether half the reason he travelled was to escape from the cramped life many he knew at school were still living, and to understand an aspect of why that life was so confining. He wanted to be involved in the world, in doing something about its injustices he said, not a bystander watching it. As he talked, Michelle looked both supportive and uncomfortable, as though she respected what he was saying but did not quite share his interest in the political.

The next day I saw them again, but instead of stopping to speak she looked the other way and he nodded to me but kept walking. Later still, walking past their tent on the way to the bathroom, I heard them arguing inside it, and wondered if the discussion the previous night had instigated a tension. The next morning as I started to pack away my tent, I saw an empty space fifty yards from mine where their tent had been. I would have liked to have thanked them for their advice before they left.

11

I travelled south from Avignon staying near a small village called Peyriac-de-mer: Ray and Michelle had told me about what they called Le Doul, a salt lake that had always been unswimmable, but in recent years they had drained much of the salt out of it and turned it into the southern French version of the Dead Sea. I stayed for several nights camping next to the lake, waking early and swimming in the fresh, cold water and watching the froth gathering on the shore. In the nearby town with a population of around a thousand I had a drink in the one cafe bar, after popped into the church on the same square and then a couple of hundred yards round by the back of the village to the graveyard. It seemed the absence of people was good for longevity; there were headstones noting several people living into their nineties, even well into their hundreds. There were probably as many dead people in the cemetery as living ones in the town.

As I wandered round it I saw someone who looked like they were sleeping rough in the graveyard. He appeared no more than in his mid-twenties, and seemed to have nothing but a sleeping bag and a small rucksack. He nodded to me as I exited, and during my stay at Peyriac I saw him several times, once in the early evening sitting outside the cafe on one of the benches, making jewelry. He didn’t talk to anyone; neither did I. My excuse was my limited French; I wondered what his was. He had a half-hearted beard that gathered mainly around his chin and narrowly below his sideburns, while his hair was dreadlocked and his jeans baggy and worn. I didn’t want to talk to him, really, but I would have liked to know why he was there, whether he was travelling indefinitely.

I would also have liked to stay in Peyriac for longer, but as camping in France was illegal, it wouldn’t have been long before I would have been moved on; my idea was to keep moving, never staying for more than two or three nights in any destination.

12

Over the following months I stayed mainly in the south of Spain, travelling to small villages but also larger cities, including Granada and Seville. In the latter I met someone who said he had the same bike, and a couple of years ago had travelled through France. As he asked where I had visited, we started to share common experiences. He told me he was sixty two, and the first thing he did after retiring early at sixty was to buy a good touring bike and to start travelling. As we sat talking in a cafe near the palace, sitting under orange trees and drinking a dry, lightly coloured red wine that seemed lighter still as the light penetrated it, so I felt I wanted to ask this man whose English was hesitant but fluent how does one arrive in his sixties with a face as interesting as his. His head was shaved close to the skull and his stubble was of the same length, and his face had the sort of wrinkles you feel the person can modulate as they wish. When he smiled the laugh lines and the creases in his cheeks became pronounced, when he frowned the forehead puckered slightly, and when he wanted to be ironic the lines on one side of his face moved in conjunction: the laugh lines, the crease in his cheek, slightly dimpled, the lines on one side of his forehead. Some older people I know look like they are trapped within their faces, with the crevices created by a life not at all speaking of their experiences; nor can they use those lines to speak for them. Diego had the face of a man whom I assumed had been in control of his destiny because he was someone who could still at sixty two control the lines on his face.

Instead I asked him what he had retired from. He said he had been an architect; perhaps if I had time he could show me a couple of houses that he had designed when he was younger: unfortunately he had never designed his own. I assumed it must have been a very creative position, and he said yes it was at the start, but by the time he was forty five he found it difficult to find projects he cared about and spent the last seventeen years mainly making money. He was involved in apartment blocks, office buildings, a few municipal projects, including a swimming pool and a library. He saved a lot of money and sometimes travelled. But the only buildings he was proud of were those he designed earlier on, and where he felt responsible for almost every detail.

We talked for more than an hour and then he asked if I would like to see the houses he had designed. I looked at my bike and he said I needn’t worry – the cafe owner would look after it; I could perhaps put it inside the cafe itself. I said it would be fine if the owner took an occasional glance over. Touring bike theft was rare I’d read: thieves don’t especially want to go off with a bike so weighed down with gear that they probably wouldn’t make it to the end of the road without somebody catching up with them. We walked for about twenty minutes and turned along a street whose name now escapes me but that had a large, covered market, and he showed me a house he had designed when he was thirty. I won’t describe it except to say that I would not have doubted that this man had designed the building. It had aged rather like he had; it managed to look old and new at the same, and I believed the house would still look like a dwelling people would want to live in and look at in a hundred years. As we went off to look at a second one he had designed, I wondered how one manages to make things age well. People, art, architecture; what is the DNA of good aging? Or is it ‘DNA’ at all?

The second house was similar to the first and as I insisted I knew nothing of architecture, I told him what I’d been thinking since we had met: how I thought he looked very good for his age but in a very specific way; how the houses he had designed seemed somehow to be aging like he was. What was the secret? He didn’t know, he said, and if he did, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to express it in any other way than through architecture and through living, but not in words. His tragedy, such as it was, was that he couldn’t keep pursuing it in his work but only in his life. Yet he would be dead long before the buildings would be taken down.

13

I thought a lot about what Diego told me long after I returned to Edinburgh, and returned also to my work in the gallery. What was it that I wanted longevity to be carried by? I knew I wished to age as well as Diego, to have lines on my face that I could modulate without feeling that every gesture was hampered by a slackness leaving my face with nothing more than tired, scared eyes to look out at the world with. At work I would look at the faces of gallery visitors in their sixties and seventies and watched to see how many of them seemed in control of their visages. Occasionally I would go up and ask them a question just to see how mobile and elastic their faces still happened to be. I wanted in old age to have a face I could call my own.

14

Six months after being back at work, I was working at the rear of the two galleries on the mound when I popped into the one at the front and noticed a new video installation. It was my lunch hour and so instead of going downstairs to the cafe, I looked around the exhibition. There they were: the man who could have been a bouncer but whose face looked too soft; the hipster who appeared like he was getting annoyed; the hippie who was a bit flirtatious. All of them speaking to the woman from the cafe. The locations were different in each instance however, with only one of them apparently taking place in the cafe I frequented. Accompanying each screen were headphones, but when you went to put them on you realised, after a minute, that the conversation you were listening to was not the same as the ones the people on screen were having. I went to another screen and put on another set of headphones and this synced with the images on the screen I had previously been looking at. The discussions took seven different forms: one was a job interview, another was a language tutorial, a third two friends meeting and so on.

I went back a couple of days later when I had the day off, and looked and listened more closely. Basically, the second headphones had the voices of the first screen; the second screen the headphones of the third screen and so on, so that screen one’s headphones were those of the final screen’s images, screen seven. The artist was Anna Ellison, someone born in Pitlochry in 1975, though brought up in London and Bristol. She said that one reason she embarked on the project was that frequently in social spaces we can be observing one thing, but listening to a completely different thing at the same time. People would often say it is rude to eavesdrop: what she noticed was that quite often the problem wasn’t moral but epistemological – it was frequently hard to concentrate on the conversation because other conversations further away were louder than the one spoken by the people closest to you. She wanted to mimic that in artistic form. I listened to the voice of the hippie and flicked between the gestures of the hipster on the screen in front of me and the hippie on the screen to my left. It was as though it were the voice of a third person, someone caught between two personalities, as if we are all more fluid than we might wish.

Afterwards I went online and looked at some of the reviews, and read a couple of Ellison’s interviews. In one of them she talked about the idea of initially arranging to meet people in a cafe but at this early stage wasn’t quite sure how the project would develop. But after meeting up with a few people she noticed that there was often a customer in the cafe who seemed to be looking across and who appeared interested to know what she and her interlocutor were talking about, but would no doubt have been privy to various conversations much closer to him, even if they seemed to interest him less.

15

Of course I could not know for sure if she was referring to me; perhaps she had interviewed many people and had clearly been to several cafes: the films seemed to have been shot in seven different ones. But of the seven people interviewed, four I had seen her speaking to in the cafe were in the film. Would anyone else have been so attentive to the conversations? Perhaps, after all, my line manager at work noticed more than I would have expected, and it led me to wonder whether when I was talking to Ray and Michelle, and to Diego, whether someone had perhaps been as interested in our conversations as I happened to be interested in those in the cafe. And if Anna Ellison could turn such an idea into an art installation, then this suggested there were rather more people wishing to be revenants in other people’s lives than I suspected. Maybe we all have an aspect to us that wishes not to believe in ghosts but to be like them, just as at other times (as I felt when I was talking to Ray and Diego) we may wish to exist more strongly in our lives and also the lives of others. It is as though however the people I met and the conversations I had with them could not as easily have served Ellison’s project and this led me to think about the nature of conversation and how it can be represented. What was the difference between a chat and a discussion, between any two people communicating with each other, and people trying to explore themselves through another? Ellison had successfully captured the former quite well, but I was left wondering what approach would suit the latter. How would one convey that? I also thought of what we seek in our lives to conquer, to move beyond. Ray, it seemed, had wished to move beyond the immediate spaces of his cramped village, and Diego the limitations of time. And what did I wish for? Perhaps to go beyond both time and space and exist somehow as a ghost, as someone who could hint at a presence in other people’s lives but never quite impact upon them.

©Tony Mckibbin