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Providence

I’ve always it seems been someone for whom hope, chance and luck have mattered, and at least temporarily believed that there were three occasions where the contingent was vital to my initial meeting with women. However, each time, and in very different ways, the feeling has been diluted by disclosures not quite as accidental as I might have hoped. There has been, finally, a dimension of the preordained or preconceived to every encounter, and, in one of them, perhaps quite ridiculously, almost fatalistically so.

The most recent example of this apparent contingency was a few months ago, where it was New Year’s Eve, in Edinburgh, with the bridge I was standing on two thirds full and the Hogmanay fireworks display about to start. I looked across and saw a hundred yards away a young woman whom I had seen several times in the previous few weeks in a number of different places. Once I saw her at the cinema, another time in a pub; on a third occasion whilst I cycled past her on a bike, and probably five or six times in a cafe. I may have seen her around a few times before that, but it was as though before she occupied no more than my peripheral vision, during those few weeks she became strangely central to it. As the firework display started I turned away from her and focused on the whites, red, blues and greens lighting up the sky, and felt elated perhaps by the fireworks in front of me, but also by the woman whom I was hoping was still behind me, and whom I hoped would still be there at the end of the display also.

I suspect I can better understand the elation I felt because some months later there was a deflationary feeling directly linked to it; but I believed at that moment providence had been kind. While most of my friends were without girlfriends or dating through internet sites, I always insisted that I would only rely on contingent meetings with women. Maybe at the age of thirty three such self-dictates could be deemed puerile; that shouldn’t I be thinking less of getting into relationships through chance and happenstance, and be thinking more of establishing a life with someone however the initial moment arises? What difference does it make when you are married with two children whether you met on a bridge on New Year’s Eve or at a bar where the date has been arranged beforehand after you have signed an agreement with a dating agency?

Yet I think there is a difference if you see love not as the means with which to continue the species and create a safe environment for the children you bring into the world, but a belief system based on the contingent. When I met Kristina on the bridge it was chance meeting fate; it was accidental yet utterly meaningful and all the more meaningful because it might never have happened. Sometimes I would muse over this, over the possibility that we might not have met, as it was left to chance whether friends and I would go and see the fireworks. We were sitting in a pub and some wanted to go; others didn’t. I was indifferent, having seen them on several occasions before, both at New Year and also during the annual international arts festival, but when a vote was taken more voted for than against, while I abstained: we quickly downed our drinks and went out into the mild, mid-winter evening. It was neither snowing nor drizzly; perhaps if it had been, the vote would have gone the other way.

Maybe Kristina and I would have met somewhere else weeks afterwards if the weather had been different, if the vote had been to stay in the pub, but I am not so sure of that. Kristina said to me, when we first arranged to meet up for a drink a couple of days after Hogmanay, the only reason she saw me around so much was that she had been snowed in. The weather leading up to Christmas was rare for Edinburgh: it was one of the few occasions where I heard people saying they were sick of the snow, fed up with walking along pavements like children learning how to walk, like drunks who couldn’t handle their liquor. It was how Kristina described the people she saw while she went to cafes and pubs as she whiled away the time she would otherwise have spent at college on the outskirts of the city, or working on essays that would have been assigned to her had it been open. Indeed one reason she suspected she remembered me so well was because of the bike. I was one of the few people she recalled cycling during this two week period.

After greeting each other when the fireworks had finished, I asked her what she was doing with the rest of Hogmanay. Her and a few of her friends were going to a club and she wondered if I wanted to come along. I thought why not and went over to the others, saying I wouldn’t be joining them again in the pub, but would be joining my new found friends in a disco. I offered it with an amused look: what I was doing wasn’t entirely fair, but knew they would have done the same in a similar situation. Yet I offered the look not so much with an awareness of my own value system; more with an awareness of theirs as they looked at me with a quiet admiration that indicated they believed I had managed to find myself a partner for the evening with hardly any effort at all. That wasn’t how I felt, but sometimes we reflect an image that suits another person’s feelings, as though the thought we would wish to offer is too intricate and complicated to be given verbal expression. For them I had prosaically but impressively pulled; for me I had managed a moment of meaningful contingency, with the sexual very much secondary to it.

Indeed that night after dancing for a while, and talking in an environment so loud that I lost my voice for two days afterwards, I left, saying to Kristina I hoped she would give me her number so that I could get in touch with her when my voice returned. She did so, and when my voice came back I texted her asking if she could meet up the following day. She agreed and we met at a cafe that before we would sometimes coincidentally see each other in. Over the next few weeks we would meet maybe twice a week, talk and then go home separately as if we had simply met up with a casual friend. I discovered that she was a movement therapist doing a post-graduate course, whose parents were much more conventionally ensconced in medicine; when they were younger they worked on Harley Street. Now they lived in retirement in the South of France. They were around forty when Kristina was born, and she was a miracle: they had been trying for years and assumed they would remain childless. They were nevertheless surprised when their daughter left school at sixteen and wanted to study unconventionally in various parts of the world: meditation in Mexico, ayurveda in India, and eventually movement therapy, which she now not only studied but also practised at a centre up in Brunstfield.

Though I offer the above as if Kristina revealed it all in one blurt of conversation, actually the details were divulged over several weeks, and sometimes with painful memories where she knew she hurt her aging parents by determining to study in areas they could not entirely understand, and in countries that took her very far away from them. The conversations were not at all casual, and Kristina said during one of them that she wondered whether I was reading her mind or echoing it: either way it seemed uncanny. She discovered as we talked that she could remember things she had thought she had forgotten but may have even repressed, and was surprised that merely talking in cafes could so readily access such memories.

If for Kristina the uncanniness resided in the discussion; for me it still rested in the coincidences, and this may have been because while I have never felt I’ve met a woman with whom I could easily share my thoughts, there have been two in my past where the contingent nature of our meetings years later still made me feel, however temporarily, that they were what we commonly call soul-mates. It is as if I recognized their importance not in the actual communication of touch, sight and sounds we shared, but in those moments that led up to the inevitability of our meeting. Yet with both those earlier situations they were not quite as surprising or as meaningful as I might have hoped: one person had engineered the meeting in the first instance, and, in the second, the person had taken our encounter far less seriously than me.

2

The first encounter was when I was twenty two and backpacking my way through France and Spain, taking some advice from my uncle who lived in Edinburgh, owned two flats there, and had rented one of them to me and a few other students throughout my degree in English. I stopped off in a youth hostel in Barcelona, intending to stay for two nights, and stayed a week. On the first evening in the kitchen I met a fellow Scot who asked if I knew of any good cafes; I said I didn’t but I would be going for a wander the following day if she wanted to join me. For the next few days Jo and I went to cafes together, to the Picasso Museum, to a second-hand bookshop in the university district, to a couple of flamenco performances, and by the end of the week I wondered whether I would not only spend my entire time in Barcelona with Jo, not only the rest of my travel trip with her, but maybe even my life.

Any woman I had known before her I knew through school, friends or university; Jo was a stranger, and I thought numerous times during that week of how easily I could not have met her before; where how inevitable it would have been for me to meet other people with whom I could have had sex but surely not the feelings I was developing for Jo. There seemed often in the hostels people practising sexual paths of least resistance. Yet it was at the end of that week, when I asked Jo whether she would like to continue travelling on to Morocco with me, when she said that maybe our meeting wasn’t entirely coincidental after all. Jo admitted she had seen me in the park across from Montpellier station eating a baguette and some cheese and grapes. She suspected I was British and hoped that I was Scottish: I was wearing a T-shirt with an Edinburgh university logo on it. She was a little homesick, hadn’t heard the Scottish accent in a month, and while she planned to stay in Montpellier for another day or two before going along the Riviera to Italy, she decided instead to get the same train as me to Barcelona. She presented this in the most plausible way she could without seeming as if she were stalking me, but it somehow utterly undermined my belief that this was the first woman whom I had met who was entirely a stranger. We travelled for a few days in Morocco, but when we got to Marrakech it was as though my desire for a chance encounter was stronger than my desire to stay with Jo.

3

I never did quite meet that stranger on a trip which incorporated France, Spain, Morocco Italy and Germany, but the next time I believed I might have done so was five years later, as I decided to do exactly the same trip just before turning twenty six: the age up until which the Eurotravel pass was valid. I had been in the same firm for two years working in publicity for a bank, and had amassed a reasonable sum of money but not many new experiences. A couple of brief affairs were insubstantial, and appeared mutually based on waiting for someone else without remotely acknowledging this reality; which added sub-text to the relatively meaningless. I felt cynical and jaded and gave up the job and bought the pass. This time, though, I also took my bike, and so at each place that I had stayed in before I would also visit neighbouring towns and villages, arriving back in Montpellier, Barcelona and other cities exhausted not from traipsing around the city, but energised if tired from cycling to places that seemed all the more meaningful for the kilometres I had pedalled getting there.

On my previous visit I stayed only one night in Nimes, and this time intended to stay for at least two. The first night I booked into a hostel and the next morning awoke early to cycle the seventeen miles to Arles with the intention of cycling back in the late afternoon, but once there I started talking to someone who had made the same cycle trip the previous day and decided she liked the town so much she was going to stay for several even though much of her travel gear was in a locker back in Nimes. We met as we filled our plastic bottles with water from a fountain, and she asked as she finished doing so where I had travelled from. I said from Nimes, and Nicola mentioned that clearly great minds were thinking alike, then added: well…great souls perhaps. I said I thought I had earned myself a proper drink, and asked if she would like to join me and we sat in a cafe looking out on the main street and talked about what makes great souls think alike. She explained that it is a certain meeting of minds that has nothing to do with logic, or reasoning procedures, nor even having very much in common. She said perhaps it had nothing more than to do with a common pursuit, and yet almost an invisible one.

She explained that she was from Upstate New York, had studied philosophy at Columbia, but wondered whether what she was looking for could be found in books or in people. She interrupted her PhD and started travelling, and eighteen months later that was exactly what she was still doing. No, she wasn’t looking for anything, didn’t especially believe in some grand sense of higher meanings, deeper meanings, or anything especially metaphysical. For her it was often quite physical; the touch of a body, the curl of a smile, the gait of a person who had worked for fifty years. Travelling gave her all of these, and yet she didn’t dismiss what she had studied either. Books, great books, she reckoned, give us eyes to see; but we also have to take those eyes out into the world and view it for ourselves. Or at least that was what she had to do.

That afternoon we drank a couple of glasses of Rosé and went for a walk before eating together not far from where we had first met. That night we slept in our own dorm bed and the next day cycled back to Nimes. In the afternoon, walking along the viaduct and then up to the tower that offered a view over the small city, we talked some more about the purpose of travelling, as she said it was never for her about seeing historical sites in themselves, but she did like seeing them within a casual, even exhausted context, as if what mattered was the destination and not the sights as such. I asked her to say more and she explained that when she arrived in Arles she wasn’t interested in where Van Gogh had painted; more with eating and drinking something. But didn’t she go to Arles to see where Van Gogh had worked, I wondered. Yes, she couldn’t deny she wanted to see where he worked and ate and drank, but when she arrived there it was much more about the work she had done cycling to the town, and the food and drink her body needed once she arrived. After another night in separate dorm beds in Nimes, we travelled along to Montpellier together, and on the first day we walked around the city and on the second she hired a bike again and we cycled to the sea. When she woke the next morning after we had slept together, she said she needed to be alone, and it was in the park near the train station, shortly before seeing her off as she travelled on to Barcelona, that she said she still loved an ex-partner, someone from years before, a few years older than her, and the very person who was the advisor on her PhD. Nicola had seen him several times since she started her travels, and admitted she hoped to see him again in a week’s time where he was attending a conference in Madrid. He had emailed her the previous day, and she thought it would be fair to tell me.

In both instances I thought I had created the space for love, as though what I wanted was an encounter that felt like a combination of that hunger and thirst Nicola talked of when arriving at a place of significance, with the physiological importance of her own needs equal to it. I thought twice in my life I had felt I was having that encounter; twice my hopes were disappointed. In both instances I went looking for the encounter through travel, yet the third time on the bridge in my very own city it came to me as if a gift, but hardly an innocent one.

4

Over the next two or three months, Kristina and I started seeing each other, met up every other day, staying over at each other’s place, eating out together, sometimes meeting up for a film or a play, sometimes for a tea or a coffee, talking for a while, then going back to whichever flat was closest. She didn’t seem to mind that we never talked of long term commitments and neither did I. It was perhaps one of my many areas of immaturity: that while I was looking for someone whom I could call special, I had no idea how I would retain that special relationship. I knew from friends that if a couple don’t move towards living together, getting married and/or having kids, then they usually drifts towards indifference or resentment. Did I really assume that I would have a series of encounters over many years, each one significant but not long-lasting, and yet on each occasion have the feeling of that life long commitment temporarily, or did I assume that the person that I would meet would want to continue living independently, in their own flat, with their own life and never have any children, or expect to be married? If my ideal had never become a reality was it because it could only exist as an ideal?

Perhaps this was exactly what I needed to find out so that I could see that ideals have histories, and, no matter how contingent a moment may appear to be, that doesn’t mean the coincidence is without other coincidences in the past that can undermine the chance encounter in the present. Let me explain. My uncle, the one I’d rented a room from years before, and with whom I would still meet up every couple of months, has been for many years a keen tango dancer; indeed told me once that he was if not quite a founding member of the Edinburgh Tango Society, was nevertheless someone who went along to the very first sessions, and had attended intermittently ever since. He was now in his late forties, the youngest of three children, and some years younger than my mother. He had made his money teaching English in the Middle-East when he was young and at a time when oil revenues meant that many a foreigner given to ignoring the political inequality of a regime could make an easy living and return home to the relative democracy that was called Britain. This was how he phrased it once, for he said he was a man of principle but also unfortunately of endless compromise. My uncle wore an expression of resigned humanity on his face, and I am not so sure if it wasn’t a face that became more attractive as he sank into that resignation. Sometimes when I would see pictures of him while he was younger, he seemed severe and stubborn. (Perhaps a face that some might say resembled my own). Now, at almost fifty and still unmarried and without children, yet never quite becoming the successful writer he may have hoped to be, he appeared to possess an attitude that might have given him the wisdom to write but it was as if somehow, as his awareness of the world increased, his will weakened.

5

It was around eight months before New Year’s Eve, sometime around Easter, that I recall meeting my uncle for dinner at a restaurant across the road from where the tango sessions were held; for some reason that evening he talked a great deal about his life, and it was on that occasion that he said he never married partly because he thought he needed time and solitude to write, but now that he hadn’t written anything in years, and didn’t feel he was likely to do so again, shouldn’t he move towards marriage and children? Yet he knew also that he had become used to his habits, liked that he could make a living renting one flat to students, and working a few hours a week as a language teacher. Both flats didn’t have a mortgage (he’d bought them with the money earned in Saudi). Yet he was not so comfortable that he could remain teaching eight to ten hours at a language school, and he didn’t have any other qualification beyond the TEFL.

He suspected my position was much healthier than his even if I was more than fifteen years younger: I worked as a secondary school teacher (doing the post-graduate course after that second trip round Europe) and was still young enough to be able in time to work my way up to head of the department, even headmaster. I explained that like him I had never wanted children, didn’t think I wanted to get married, and that I always felt teaching was the work I was inclined to do. He said that one reason why he was so involved in tango was that it was a great limbo activity; something that gave one a very strong sense of immediate purpose, without, for most people who happened to do it, allowing for a professional sense of direction. Yes, he said, occasionally someone becomes a tango teacher; one person he knew opened a tango shop selling the clothes, shoes, CDs and so on, but for almost everyone else it couldn’t be claimed as more than a hobby. He loved tango, but it did little to alleviate his feelings of futility once the evening was over. He said he may even on occasion have taken lovers, dated people from tango, partly to find a way of continuing the obsession outside the two or three evenings each week.

It was that evening, and after this point, when my uncle told me that a month earlier he had started seeing a beautiful and much younger woman whom he had met in the class one night. He said he could tell me all about her but it wasn’t that important: what he wanted to say was no more than that he had met someone for whom he believed the work and the life were aligned but that whose emotional existence was very remote from her needs. I looked at my uncle as if to say he was being unusually abstract; and he said he felt reluctant to talk about her for reasons that he couldn’t quite understand, but that more than anybody he had perhaps ever danced with, she was in the dance though not in her feelings. Tango he insisted was often regarded as the most formal and the most difficult dance one could do, but people would still invest a great deal of emotion into the dance itself. For her, he thought, the investment was all technical, and though they had slept together several times, he felt he knew her not at all. I was about to ask my uncle a few other questions when he looked at his watch and said he really ought to go: he had promised that he would meet her at the class at 8.30 and it was already twenty past.

I would of course have liked to find out more about this much younger woman he was seeing, whose name he hadn’t even offered, but not so badly that I would have been in touch again to enquire further. It was a few months afterwards, probably around October, when I saw him again, and he didn’t mention her at all. We talked chiefly of my mother’s health, but also about problems he was having with the rented flat. I had been up north a few days before and when we had talked briefly on the phone from my mother’s house in the Highlands he asked me if we could meet after I got back to discuss how she was getting on. He couldn’t make it up north himself because of the flat problems. So as we met up we mainly talked about my mother, who had had a mild stroke but where she looked like she would make a full recovery, and that two of his tenants had been involved in a fight in the flat where one had been arrested and the other taken to hospital for quite severe bruising. It had been a third flatmate who had phoned the police. He was deciding whether to get completely new tenants; since the four people in there were all somehow interconnected. I don’t think it even occurred to me to ask whether he was still seeing this young woman. It was not long after this that my uncle went away for a year to teach English in a school in Buenos Aires, where I assumed he would be tangoing every night, and I hadn’t heard from his since.

6

Yet it would have been around April, a year after that initial conversation with my uncle, that Kristina talked more about her choice of Edinburgh, and also said that shortly after she arrived she had started attending tango evenings after being very involved in the dance for several years in Barcelona. I asked her why she hadn’t said more about this when we had talked previously, and she replied for two reasons. One that no conversation had ever quite demanded it; aren’t there many things we never know about other people not always because they are trying to hide things from us, but because the topic never comes up? I knew that she had danced tango, but since she hadn’t been going since she had met me, I assumed it wasn’t  a dance she took that seriously. The second reason, and perhaps the more significant one, was that the story contained within it elements she wasn’t especially proud of. Elements that, she had to admit, meant our meeting on New Year’s Eve wasn’t quite as coincidental as I might have thought.

She explained that after arriving in Edinburgh she decided to join tango classes and it was there that she met someone more than twenty years older than she was. Kristina said what she believed she found so interesting about him was that he was so unlike her; someone who seemed to understand his own life very well but not quite his purpose in it. She supposed she was the opposite. She had known since sixteen what she wanted to do, and each stage of her life had fulfilled it. She knew what qualifications she needed to study psychology at university, and knew also that many of her interests could be incorporated into her area of expertise: including the various dance and movement courses she had done that led to her to be a qualified movement therapist, and where the part time post-grad was an additional qualification.

However, she often wondered whether she was living without much emotion; he seemed to feel so much and would live so easily within that feeling. But after several months, around September, she had to leave the flat she had been staying in since she had arrived in Edinburgh, as the landlord was thinking of selling it. When she told the older man she was seeing he suggested not that he move in with her, but that she take a room in the flat he owned, and where there was a spare room since someone had moved out only a week or two earlier. He hadn’t yet chosen any of the people he had interviewed for the room. He said she could pay whatever she liked after he offered it to her, and she couldn’t pretend while she respected his generosity she was disappointed that he didn’t at least suggest she move in with him. She would probably have refused, but that he didn’t at all countenance the idea left her vaguely annoyed.

It was possibly out of this low-key irritation that she acted a little more flirtatiously with her new flatmates than she might, and within a couple of weeks it was quite clear two of the flatmates were attracted to her, and yet though both were attractive they also seemed so young. They possessed none of the older man’s sensitivity, sensitivity in the sense that he didn’t remotely it seemed want to woo her and win her but only understand her. She suspected that this had been so with many of his lovers, and how could a woman be attracted to competitive young men when she had the chance to be with a man possessed of so much more density?

As she talked she could see that I was becoming increasingly uneasy, but couldn’t, I believed, have understood entirely why: I was beginning to suspect the man she was talking about was my uncle. As I asked her to go on, she wondered whether it was a good idea for us to talk about her previous lover, and yet I wanted to know how they had split up. She explained that a month or two after moving in, the two young men fought not so much over her, since she was a prize they could not win, but took out their animosity towards each other through her. As one evening they jokingly said that soon enough she would get bored with their landlord, so they decided to arm wrestle to see who would be her next lover. She found it amusing to see these two men in their mid-twenties twitching their tendons in a modern form of an ancient rite, and said that the winner would at least be entitled to a kiss on the cheek. However, as they both started to cheat, one of them clipped the other around the ear, and his opponent punched him full in the face. She got their other flat mate to call the police as the two boys started wrestling on the kitchen floor, and an hour afterwards her lover and landlord came round.

A few days later he finished the relationship with her, asked if she could find a new flat, and said he was going to rent the whole place to a family and do some teaching abroad. She was in shock for a week, depressed for a month and surprised that she felt relieved by Hogmanay. I wondered if she offered the closing part of her sentence to reassure me, and yet she had told the story in a manner which hardly protected my feelings: I didn’t think she would do so merely at the conclusion.

However, what she said next was perhaps horribly cruel to someone who apparently believes so much in contingency, as she claimed that meeting this older man she somehow felt was a precursor to meeting me as she said that though at the end she realised this older man was slightly callous in how he ended the relationship, he was nothing but tender within it, and she noticed a similar tenderness in me despite a slight hardness in the face that she was sure would soften with age. What she also added was that she was someone who would not usually have gone to cafes alone, nor the cinema, but during the period between October and Christmas she could not easily be without company, did not want to spend much time with her new flatmates after the events with the last ones, and could not easily get to college on certain days because of the weather.

7

The discussion took place in my flat where the cold early April winds whipped round the walls and I thought about how much our getting together was based on the broader contingencies of the weather, and the narrower ones of human behaviour. Here I was going out with someone based not at all on so convenient an arrangement as a friend of a friend or a dating agency. But instead found that I was seeing my uncle’s ex-girlfriend; that she was single on that bridge on New Year’s Eve because my uncle had ended their relationship. I remember many years earlier when he would sometimes return from working in Saudi that I was fascinated by where he had been and what things he had done. When he would next return I know the feeling will be very different, and not only because I am a grown man, but also because in some way and on some level he feels like a love rival. I am also more immediately worrying how Kristina will respond to the idea that some of the traits she so admires in me might have been inherited from an older man she had loved, and who had finished with her only a couple of months before she met his nephew. In the following weeks after our discussion that April day I couldn’t help but think while the previous two encounters with Jo and Nicola contained their own moments of dashed idealism, the encounter with Kristina is almost, I feel, providence’s way of saying that I needed to accept that chance hasn’t much to do with anything, except perhaps cruelly. I am still waiting to tell Kristina, aware that surely my uneasiness towards the situation would be more than matched by hers. Kristina may have travelled the world and found herself far from her own family, but coming to Scotland has made her perversely close to mine.

©Tony McKibbin