This page as PDF

Sensibilities

Is it possible for someone, I recently found myself wondering, to be offended spatially? It was probably half a dozen times over a period of six months that we talked about the Thomases. The first was as Giancarlo and I sat one lunch-time in the café near where we both worked, and he told me they were a couple he felt he could somehow offend. Not that he was of course trying to offend this couple in their late seventies whom he had befriended six months before. No, it was more that though they seemed so liberal, thoughtful and considerate, and yet curiously vulnerable, and that though he was happy to know them, he believed they were like a warm and sprawling house he was free to roam around in, and yet a house possessed of at least one room into which he wasn’t allowed to enter. At the same time, and to stretch the metaphor, none of the rooms were locked, and he had somehow to guess what room it was that he was not to peer into. As he said I was the first person he was talking to about this, I asked why he was specifically telling me. We knew each other moderately well, though chiefly because we taught a few hours a week at the same language school: he taught Italian, I taught English. He believed that perhaps I was at an age to understand the couple; that somehow he was still too young. He said that once his mother, who taught English literature in Bologna, remembered reading that Henry James shouldn’t be read by someone before they were thirty. He wondered whether it was the same in relation to understanding certain situations. I was thirty eight and he was twenty five, and he reckoned that maybe the couple had credited him with a certain type of maturity he didn’t possess, and that he thought I might.

He first met the Thomases through an advert: they had recently bought a holiday cottage in Tuscany, and they were looking for someone to give them some private conversational lessons. They had a house on the South side of Edinburgh, in a residential area known for the splendour of the houses and the Thomases’ house was as grand as any. As he walked up the gravel path and rang the doorbell, he looked up and saw how well built this portico happened to be. The pillars must have been several feet in diameter, and as it took a minute or so for someone to answer the door he suspected this had less to do with impoliteness, or even old age – he assumed they were an older couple from the man’s voice on the phone – but more the enormous dwelling.

It was indeed an old man who answered the door, but though his face was wizened his frame was surprisingly taut as he stood there with his back straight and ushered Giancarlo into the house. As Giancarlo looked around him he wasn’t initially especially impressed, perhaps because it resembled many grand Italian houses, but as he detailed the place to me it was clearly a property of some magnitude. It wasn’t only that the hallway was semi open-plan and had sitting rooms, dining rooms and the kitchen off it, it wasn’t only that the hallway had wide stairs that led to an equally grand first floor, nor that there was a third, attic floor and also a roomy basement. It was also what the house contained, from a grand piano in one of the living rooms to a study walled with books going back hundreds of years and the paintings and pictures on the walls often by well known artists: not only Scottish impressionists and the Glasgow School of the eighties, but also drawings by Picasso and work by Matisse and Schiele.

As he discovered, while the three of them sat in the study preparing to start the first lesson, as Mrs Thomas poured the tea she had just made, the Thomases were not completely new to the language: they had been to Italy several times when they were much younger, but in more recent years – the last thirty five in fact – they had owned a holiday home in France, and so obviously that was the language upon which they had concentrated their energies. Giancarlo, who was fluent in English thanks presumably to his mother, pointed out that they used the phrase ‘concentrating their energies’ a great deal, and yet it was one new to him, and he wondered whether it was a phrase of this couple’s generation, or perhaps of this couple. He said that they were still obviously immensely active, and, during the first lesson conducted in a mixture of Italian and English, the Thomases were surprisingly, or at least apparently, open about themselves. I asked him why he used the word surprising, and Giancarlo assumed people accumulated secrets as they got older, that more and more was left to sub-text. He believed what made people seem immature was their belief everything could be expressed. I said I wasn’t so certain – there are misologists of all ages: people who would always have an antipathy to discussion. I said I remembered coming across the word in Plato’s Phaedrus. But maybe Giancarlo was right; that over time one generally becomes more and more reluctant to talk; that one believes all ideas have been exhausted, and that what kept this couple young was their apparent love of discussion.

They talked for two and a half hours that day, though he was only hired to teach for one and a half. They insisted on paying him for three, and upped the lessons to twice a week, saying they would pay him for however long the classes ran, but that he should not at all feel he ought to stay for more than a hour and a half if he had other obligations. They were indeed not misologists: over the next few weeks the classes would run usually to three hours and these were some of the most exhilarating conversations of his life. He would leave the house with another sixty pounds in his pocket and his head busy with thoughts, anecdotes and stories, and he wondered whether these were the most wonderful people he had ever met.

As I nodded for him to continue, to provide a broader context than an old couple living in a beautiful house and providing invigorating conversation, he said that they had told him quite a lot about their life. The husband was originally from the south of England, while her family had an estate in the Highlands. They met when they were both at medical school here in Edinburgh, but after Mr Thomas’s father died and he was left with a comfortable inheritance, and on completing his studies and his training in medicine, he opened a gallery on Dundas Street which he had sold only five years before. He never did practice medicine, though his wife moved into alternative therapies, and was one of the major figures in holistic health care in the city. She had also for many years been a partner in a successful vegetarian restaurant. What so surprised Giancarlo, however, was how despite their obviously hectic life – which also included hosting regular dinner parties and attending numerous social events – they had read a great deal, and seemed to have that quality of aloneness that he had always believed I possessed.

It was true that I lived alone, and that I enjoyed my own company so much that I even invented a little term for it: eventful aloneness. Some of my best days consisted of talking to no one as I would get up early, have a quick breakfast, fill a flask and make up a sandwich, take some biscuits, throw everything into the ruck-sack and go walking up by the Pentland hills. I would arrive back in the late afternoon and read for a couple of hours in a café before going home and making myself some dinner. I would sometimes say to people that I was alone so much because I only had so many words in me, and wanted to reserve most of them for the work. I wasn’t one for telling stories, more extrapolating ideas, and what I often liked to do was hear someone talk; listening to a story they had to tell that might lead to an idea upon which we could both expound. Maybe someone cynically minded would propose that I did so to glean ideas for my own work, my own modest writing career: as well as the few hours of teaching I wrote book reviews for a mainstream paper, and short stories for small magazines. Not much of a living was made, but my needs were few and the flat I owned was bought with money my parents left me when they had died shortly before my seventeenth birthday. But my own belief is that while I liked my own company I didn’t assume that made me remotely interesting to others, and perhaps my patience with myself, with my solitariness, allowed me to be patient towards other people who I thought had more interesting things to say. Why write at all, someone might then ask, and I would say to help articulate and publicise the words of others: whether that be friends I possessed, or writers that I had read. I was very much interested in stories; I simply didn’t have many of my own. But for some reason this story I am now writing seems to be doing more than expressing the actions of others; it in some way appears also to be expressing aspects of my, perhaps, fragile personality.

Giancarlo was clearly gregarious, and believed he constantly lost time through socialising too much, and one of the questions that he couldn’t help asking himself about the Thomases was how they managed to be so out there in the world and yet capable of devoting so much time to their inner thoughts, to reading as much as they clearly had, to writing numerous books on art, in Mr Thomas’s case, on holistic living in Mrs Thomas’s. He said he recalled me saying to him once that I didn’t socialise that much, didn’t go and see films, and didn’t even want to embark on a novel, because I’d said I only had enough energy in me to live monastically. I could read books and write short pieces, but I would always insist on eight hours of sleep a night, and would often do a couple of hours of yoga a day. He reminded me that I once said I might stop reading and writing altogether and do nothing but eat sparsely and meditate.

I laughed at this, and I asked him to say less about me and more about the couple. But he somehow believed that he could say nothing of interest without in some way comparing them to me; and that would help explain why he had come to talk to me about them in the first place. Before meeting them he assumed people had to make choices between interior preoccupation or social activity, and thought I was of the former type and he was the latter.

However, here was this couple who were always busy doing things and yet also always not only open to numerous ideas, but would quote them too: the list of writers they mentioned included various philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard to Heidegger, novelists from Cervantes to Tolstoy, Garcia Marquez to Coetzee. It was then, in that first conversation about them, that I looked up at the clock and said the story would have to wait: I had some teaching to do.

As I gave the students some basic grammar exercises I wondered whether I was a misologist. I would usually give the students grammar work rather than offer conversational classes, and while I’ve said I’m not a bad listener, this is hardly the same thing as being a raconteur. Perhaps the opposite. I’ve never thought there was a reason for this, but I did wonder after talking with Giancarlo if it had anything to do with having a room that no one is free to enter. I may have casually offered the fact that my parents died when I was seventeen, but that is a detail a few people know – including Giancarlo – and there is much about my youth I have not divulged here or anywhere else. Yet when he seemed to think I might be the person he should talk to about possibly offending this couple whom he in some way thought he might violate, did Giancarlo instinctively know that I had reasons for possessing boundaries I didn’t want people to cross? He may have known I would occasionally sleep with students at the school, he may have known that was not where my boundaries lay, and maybe that was again why he came to me: to understand not the couple, especially, but an aspect of self-protection.

We met up a week or two later, and I asked him whether he had seen any more of the Thomases. He said he was still tutoring them. They had even invited him along to a party at their house, and when he arrived he was surprised to find that he was not the youngest person there: a few people in their early twenties or so were mulling around, and they turned out to be people who worked in Mrs Thomas’s restaurant, and a few other people of a similar age were students of Mr Thomas’s. He taught afternoon classes, and one of the students said that he would often stay behind afterwards for a cup of tea in the canteen and answer any questions the students wanted to ask that they felt they didn’t have the time or space for during the class itself. Perhaps, Giancarlo said, he could have felt deflated, knowing that he was not an especially favoured child of the Thomases – that there were many other young people they knew. It was at this moment I asked whether they had children of their own, and he said they alluded to their childlessness only once: they caught his eye looking at a fertility object and Mr Thomas wryly observed that it hadn’t worked for him. At the party all the young people he talked to said they wished they could be like the Thomases when they reached their seventies. Giancarlo wondered to himself whether part of the exuberance they still possessed lay in never having had kids.

On another occasion Giancarlo told me that over the weeks the conversational classes had become more personal still, and both of them would tell Giancarlo that though they married young, this didn’t stop them experimenting with other partners, especially in the sixties when many would be experimenting likewise. Mr Thomas also talked of his experiences on Mescaline, LSD and how he tried numerous different types of pot. What Giancarlo found interesting was the language they used. They never seemed to indulge in anything, and always talked of experiencing, experimenting and enjoying life. Sometimes when he arrived at the house and was ushered through the front door he would smell home-baking, and the Thomases would guide him into the kitchen. As one of them would put the kettle on, they would ask whether he preferred, say, a scone or a piece of carrot cake. Yet of course neither of them were overweight, and he knew that a scone with a cup of tea, or a piece of carrot cake after their meal, were not indulgences; they were all part of the variety of life. It was true they were more or less vegetarians, but they would sometimes eat fish if they were near the sea and the fish had been freshly caught, and sometimes chicken or beef when they ate out in some of the rural restaurants near their converted farmhouse in the South of France. They both loved wine, and would drink it several times a week over dinner, and there were a couple of pubs in the city where they would go with friends and drink a Lagavulin or a Dalwhinnie whisky.

Giancarlo did not push them to reveal any more about their lifestyle than they wished, but sometimes he wanted to enquire further, that he increasingly believed they were only apparently personal. He wanted, he told me, to ask them more about those experimental sexual experiences in the past; wanted to know if there was any jealousy, if either of them fell in love with someone else and if the marriage was ever put in crisis. But as he would look at their far from young faces, so he would see people much older than his own parents, and felt a shame that he believed would have been more his than theirs in the asking, but still he could not ask.

I wondered how much of this was merely about their age; or whether there would have been in the asking of the question about their sexual lives something personal in his feeling but impersonal in their response. Maybe, I added, that there was such a public dimension to this couple that he wouldn’t have got the personal reply he was looking for, but a quite general public one, while he would have felt the personal one through his own sense of shame in the asking. He thought he knew what I meant, because he had always found it easy to ask me anything, and he didn’t believe it was only a matter of age – I was after all a few years older than he was, and he knew he could not ask other people of my generation the sort of questions he would ask me. Indeed, he then said, maybe talking to me about them was his way of dealing with their impersonality.

As I’ve said before, I am not much of a talker; I socialise very little, and most of my time is devoted to my own company. Yet it is also the case that over the years though people have insisted I am a private person, that they’ve nevertheless felt they can enter the private space that I occupy. It is perhaps a useful definition for intimacy: that a person is private yet nevertheless allows others into that privacy, no matter the areas I possess that I refuse to expose.

About a week later we met up again one afternoon, after both of us had been teaching in the language school. As we walked along to our regular café he said that since our last conversation, and after a couple more conversational classes at the Thomases, a few other things had occurred to him. He believed that though they gave the impression of great openness, there was so little open about them. He said that while undeniably their house was stunningly decorated, contained numerous art works and objet d’art, he increasingly felt they were curators over their own lives, and he said it seemed so different from my own flat. He said this as if he weren’t sure whether he was offering a compliment or an insult, but added that he knew that most of my books were second-hand paperbacks, that most of the pictures were reproductions, and that the furniture was a haphazard mix of the solidly wooden left lying outside someone’s flat, and the cheap and tatty picked up from Charity Shops, but that they all seemed to reveal much about who I was. He recalled that the first time he had been over at my flat, which was in the city centre but whose top-floor aspect gave the impression of isolation, was to borrow a novel from me, and as I offered him a cup of tea and we sat and chatted for an hour, so after that hour he thought he should leave, even though he felt very comfortable in the space and in my company. With the Thomases, though they would let the class run to well over two hours and often three, and even then would give the impression they could talk some more but were interrupting it only because they had a concert on that evening, or a film to see, or a dinner invite to attend, so with me he thought that after an hour his time was up. He laughed as he said this, believing that even though he was expected to leave, that didn’t mean I had anything pressing to do. He shrugged his shoulders after this, as if sensing at that moment we had talked enough, and that I once again needed to be alone.

He was right of course. I had enjoyed the conversation, but he was quite perceptive in having noticed when I needed to return to myself that first time in my flat, and noticing it again there in the café.

The truth, I suppose, and this has come to me especially through the conversations with Giancarlo, and his insistent need to contrast the Thomases’ way with mine, is that I am not always an especially private person, but that I am someone who often needs to collect his own thoughts. The impression I increasingly had of the Thomases was that they were essentially kinetic people: they were figures in constant verbal or physical motion, and I suspected while they were no doubt well-read, they read not out of passivity but restless activity. There was always an article they needed to read, a writer they had to keep up with, a new thought they wanted to examine. In my case I barely knew what would interest me from one day to the next, though obviously something always did. I simply rarely knew in advance what that would be. It was the same with lovers or, perhaps a better and more general word, intimates. I would sometimes go many months without getting physically close to anyone, and then I would be sitting reading in a café, someone would sit near me and through some contingency we would get talking and it seemed quite natural that we might become lovers. So they would often talk and I would often listen; we would end up eating together, and then go for a drink, and then sometimes they would come back to my flat that evening, sometimes not and so we would meet the next day or the day after, and after that perhaps end up making love, perhaps not at all. But no matter the permutation it took, intimacy was generated. Were the Thomases, for all their brilliance, in some way lacking intimacy? Can one be too open, both to others and the world, for intimacy to be created – as if intimacy is not openness, as such, but merely a portal which people can slip through? Did even my compact flat suggest a portal, where the Thomases luxurious and opulent house indicated too public a sphere? Were even my areas of concealment part of this intimacy?

It was some time after that last discussion I again talked with Giancarlo. I had been away for a month, taking what I would call an elemental break: a month by the sea in the south of Turkey, where I would read, walk, swim and write. As usual I had rented out my flat for August, for the entire Festival period, so that the rental covered my food and accommodation for a month somewhere else. It was the fifth year in a row that I had been to Cirali. The language school was not always happy to lose me during one of its busiest months, but as I would do extra hours during the no less busy June and July, it was always accepted. I arrived back to Edinburgh early in the morning, and went directly to the language school, leaving my rucksack in the staffroom and going straight in to teach a three hour morning class. During the break I saw Giancarlo photocopying material for an evening class and, after I asked him how he was doing, he said he thought, in a very roundabout way, he might have finally managed to offend the Thomases. I said if he was still around we could talk about it at lunchtime.

Over lunch he wondered whether he had offended them spatially. I laughed, as if to say what the heck did that mean, and he laughed back saying it was the sort of comment he believed I would have made, one of those statements that begged further discussion. While I’ve said often enough I’m a private person, I would also happily expand upon thoughts that would come to me quite spontaneously, as if working through an idea that had never occurred to me before the conversation had taken place: which was usually true.

He said he went with the Thomases to see a Pirandello play at the Pleasance, a location used for theatre and comedy shows during the festival, and as the show was not far from his flat, and all the seats in the outside bar were taken, so he invited them back to his place for a cup of tea. I’d never been to his flat, and obviously there had never before been a reason for him to describe it. But as he said he took them up the two flights of stairs to the second floor, as he noticed for the first time the mess of the stairwell, he felt a certain shame in the place that he’d never before recognized. It was just another Edinburgh flat with a mixture of long ago varnished floorboards, dulled wallpaper, a kitchen full of dirty dishes on the table. equally dirty dishes in the sink, and a TV on in the sitting room, which his three flatmates were sitting around while smoking a spliff. As the flatmates waved at the couple without turning round while they remained concentrated on what was on the screen, as they acknowledged the Thomases’ presence without paying enough attention to see that this was an elderly couple, so Giancarlo took them into the kitchen, and asked them to take a seat while he put on the kettle.

For the first time since he had known them he thought their body language seemed restricted, their faces slightly closed, and their conversation stilted. For all their liberal attitudes, for all their spouse-swapping in the past and Mr Thomas’s own drug-taking, here was a moment of what Giancarlo called, with the help of my rather more extended native vocabulary, uncouthness. I said I recalled reading Milan Kundera saying one knew a language well when feeling a sense of shame in relation to it. Could the same be true of spaces; that Giancarlo felt ashamed by his flat in relation to the Thomases’ undeniable couthness? Giancarlo talked often enough to the Thomases of his friends and his flatmates, of wild parties he would sometimes go to and even of his flatmates’ indolence: their hours watching TV and playing computer games, even how one of them had their computer constantly crashing as he endlessly down-loaded porn. Perhaps the Thomases could display their liberal leanings conversationally, but could they really retain them in an environment like Giancarlo’s flat – a place I suspected was no tidier or messier than many a student apartment in the city? They might not have been misologists, but what they could countenance in conversation, could they countenance in space?

However if Giancarlo believed he had somehow violated the Thomases, and maybe in turn the Thomases had violated him, then how did I feel returning to my flat after having rented it out for a month? As I opened the front door and walked into the narrow hallway, which was not much more than eight feet long and two and half feet wide, as I stood in the one spot and noted that the flat was little more than a studio apartment with walls partitioning it, and that the books could be seen as cluttering the place up as readily as giving it warmth and singularity, so I felt a mild sensation that I could only have called shame. Shame in the face of what exactly I couldn’t quite say, and still can’t say months afterwards. Giancarlo no longer gives lesson to the Thomases, and the last time I saw him a few days ago he said he was thinking of returning to Italy. I wondered if he may have realized that though he seemed to have offended the Thomases, he also managed in a decidedly round about way to cause if not offence then at least on my part a curious self-awareness. His comment about the furniture, books and pictures that I had initially taken as the compliment I’m sure it was meant to be, increasingly felt like an insult. Now I wonder if indeed the sense of an insult wasn’t what he also created in the Thomases – they may have been aware for a short while how the other half lived, visiting Giancarlo’s flat, but also perhaps how little time they had to live at all. I also wondered if he realized that finally his presence had nothing to do with him wandering into one of their rooms, but the Thomases wandering through his.  By extension, when I returned to my own flat early that afternoon after hearing his story, I had the strange feeling that all three of them had wandered through mine also.


 

 

©Tony McKibbin