A few years ago I was seeing someone who told me about her best friend. The best friend’s name was Elisa, and, unlike Louise, who had three sisters and two brothers, Elisa was an only child. When they were at school together, in both primary and secondary, Elisa would often come round to Louise’s and play even when Louise wasn’t there. She was Louise’s best friend but also a friend of the entire family, a biological solitary whose parents were literary academics often working late in libraries and who seemed to wish for their daughter the cloistered, bookish solitude they practised. But Elisa never enjoyed reading: it was too isolated an activity, and so her resistance to books had nothing to do with words, but instead with loneliness, and when Louise and Elisa had a reading assignment at school they usually read the story or book together, often staying up late in the night at Louise’s place and reading to each other in bed. Louise’s father nicknamed Elisa the seventh sibling, in a weary but fond gesture acknowledging that he probably had too many children of his own and why not add a seventh to the list. Louise’s mother called her Lily, as if the diminutive indicated an inclusiveness she thought her husband was in danger of denying with his more aloof coinage. Elisa would often say if she became a mother she would never have only one child.
Louise’s family lived on the same street as Elisa’s in a southern suburb of Paris called Chaville, not far from Versailles. The houses were similar in size, on three floors, with the third floor an attic space that in Elisa’s house belonged to her father and was a space she almost never entered, while in Louise’s house it was her friend’s room. Louise was the oldest of the six, and managed to protect the space as the oldest child’s entitlement. The attic room in Elisa’s was busy with books, with the ceilings surprisingly high for an upper floor as the sloping roof was above head height. Louise’s room was decorated with iconic posters, CDs and hundreds, perhaps thousands of records, and Elisa would say that walking into her father’s study was like walking into a past age of horrible loneliness; walking into Louise’s she felt she was happily living in the present and with others. Louise would sometimes have parties there, with up to twenty people from school, and was, she told me without self-aggrandizement, the one towards whom others would gravitate, a centripetal force she could never resist being until years later, after university.
What changed I had asked her, and she replied this was a question she couldn’t answer but only speculate upon. There are certain actions that are attached to our name but for which we can’t easily claim responsibility, and this, for her, was one of them. During her years at university doing translation studies, she rented cheaply off her aunt an attic flat in the 10th arrondissement that was not unlike the room at home, and once again the space became the environment where everyone felt comfortable and ensconced. She had all her records and CDs there, and the place had the ambience of a well run cafe: you could smell ground coffee beans, the music was carefully chosen and of great range and variation, and even a selection of cakes were quite often available: she had learnt from her mum the pleasures of an afternoon given over to homebaking. Again she offered the remarks as if she were talking about someone else and, since this conversation took place after knowing Louise for only a few weeks, her indifference towards her former self contained within it an aspect of suspense: what had changed her from the person who was the centre of everybody’s attention, to someone who claimed her only friend when I had met her was Elisa?
After completing her degree, Louise said that she sublet the flat and moved to the south of France, initially fruit-picking during the summer months and the early autumn, and then working in a cafe run by an English couple in Montpellier, where she learnt to bake things she had never tried before: sultana scones, carrot cake and chocolate brownies. It was during this two year period that she both understood the pleasures of solitude and also for the first time the feeling of love. Of course she had boyfriends at school and at university, but her life seemed so frenetically packed with others that she never found the emotional solitude she believed she had needed to fall in love. There were evenings in those first months after she started working in the cafe where she would close up, take a long walk home, and watch a film after a light dinner. Sometimes she would want to phone her family or friends, but she restricted herself to Sundays, and if someone phoned her mobile she never answered it. During this time Elisa was still living in Paris, working in a second-hand record shop near the Sorbonne, and was staying in Louise’s flat alongside a colleague from work. When Louise had told her she wanted to speak to her friends and family only on Sunday, Elisa understood, or perhaps happened to be involved enough with other people for Louise’s friendship to mean less to her than it had several years earlier. Her parents did not even know Louise had made this decision: they would talk every couple of weeks.
Her choice to avoid contact with Chaville and Paris during the rest of the week often made her feel lonely, but at the same time resilient and resourceful. She would also refuse social invitations from the owners, the other two members of staff in the cafe, and also customers. Often the latter would chat to her, frequently asking about the music that was being played and that Louise had usually chosen. People would ask her about the eccentricities of Pascal Comelade, to play again the Divine Comedy song ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ so that they could listen to the lyrics more carefully, and showed surprise when she played Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’. She told them the song had amongst the most moving lyrics she had ever listened to, and felt, hyperbolically, that Springsteen’s capacity for transition in the song was the equal of Chekhov.
She admitted she offered the latter line only once, and to an Irishman who passed through the cafe and knew Chekhov’s work rather better than she did. It was an afternoon dormant of human activity, with the wind whipping around the thin streets and the few customers who had entered the cafe that afternoon wondering why they had left the house at all. When he arrived with a large rucksack, sleeping bag attached, and running shoes dangling from the straps, the cafe was empty, and she noted ten minutes later, after he ordered a coffee and a slice of carrot cake, that when it looked as if someone passing might enter she registered her mild irritation. She wanted this man to herself. It was shortly afterwards that she played ‘The River’, and they talked for an hour. He asked if he could meet her again after the shop closed and for the first time in all the months she had been working in the cafe she said yes.
In a bar that evening she told him about her degree, saying she chose translation studies because she wanted eventually to write a PhD on song lyrics and found it interesting that where film dialogue, literature and poetry is translated, we leave lyrics isolated in their own language. Is this a sign of respect or disrespect she wondered? Are we saying that even more than poetry the language belongs to the integrity of the sound, or is it that we don’t feel the words are that important? When she started her degree she wanted somehow to make a living translating songs like ‘The River’ into French, so that inside the DVDs and records they would have not only the original, but a French translation also.
He said his degree was in literature, and that he supposed he was interested in questions of language too. After university he went on a one year creative writing course, and produced a short novel that was written in a Cork dialect. Before writing it he thought it would have been easy, but capturing the precise rhythm of speech, and the intonations, when even people from the same town had subtly different delivery, required a lot of work. He would go to cafes and bars and record the conversations he would overhear, and try and find in these discussions the Cork intonation: the average accent specific to place. One reason why he was travelling around France, Italy and Spain, he said, was so that he could return home with literally a fresh ear. He wanted to expand and complete the book.
He stayed in Montpellier longer than he anticipated, and left after three months. He emailed her occasionally, but it was clear in the tone that he saw their affair as casual, so she didn’t tell him that she was pregnant with his child, and that she was going to keep it. She knew when she must have conceived: it was the night before he left, and while on every other occasion he had carefully pulled out as they perhaps stupidly didn’t take any precautions, on this occasion as he tried to do so she clenched her thighs firmly and said it would be okay: her period was about to start. It wasn’t a lie but it proved to be a misdiagnosis, and so she not only found herself pregnant, but insisted that it was her mistake and not his. But she also admitted to me that she wanted a baby; that she became fascinated in her months in the south with being all alone in the world except for this child growing inside her belly.
She had the baby in the south, and moved out of the place she was staying in not far from the cafe, and to a small house a few miles from Narbonne. It belonged to a cousin, and it was late October and the cousin said he wouldn’t be staying in the place until early summer. It was all arranged through Louise’s mother, and it offered Louise a further degree of solitude. The house was a converted shack, probably used in the past by the person who was looking after the vineyard. It had one bedroom, a bathroom and a sitting room with the kitchen incorporated. The cooker used gas cylinders that she occasionally had to replace by getting a taxi from the village centre about three kilometres away, but for her general shopping she would walk, carrying her rucksack on the back and her daughter in a pouch at the front. Her mother had wondered whether the place was the appropriate environment to bring up a baby: shouldn’t she be somewhere like Chaville, around people who could help her look after the child? No, she insisted, this was what she wanted for herself and her daughter. She wished to be alone with her baby. Though her parents, her brothers and sisters and friends (including Elisa) had visited her after the baby was born in the hospital in Montpellier, after moving to the little house she allowed only one guest: Elisa.
It was as though, Louise said to me, that only Elisa could understand the solitude she was seeking, and so every month or so her friend would take a train from Paris and stay for about a week in the house, sleeping on the couch and carrying the rucksack when they would go into the village and buy shopping. The house had an open fire and at night during these winter months where the temperature could get close to zero, Louise would light a fire and they would talk about their past and what they wanted to do with their future. During her time in Montpellier, and then in the house, Louise had translated hundreds of songs from English into French. And in the future wanted to teach song lyrics as well as translating them. While in Montpellier she had read about a course in Maastricht called Pop Song and Poetry: theory and analysis, so knew it wasn’t an absurd hope. Elisa was still working in the record shop, but also as a teaching assistant a couple of mornings a week. She couldn’t quite share Louise’s desire for solitude, and admitted that she would probably always seek work that required company.
It was then Elisa told her about a moment when she was around eleven and Louise’s family must have been visiting friends. Elisa arrived home from a dance class on a late Saturday afternoon and neither of her parents was in the house. She walked through it like a ghost, except that the phrase didn’t quite work because she herself was scared as if of ghosts. If she were like a ghost than she would have nothing to fear. So, no, it wasn’t that. She was frightened of her own presence in a world of absence, and she knew this was what not liking one’s own company meant. How, she asked Louise, did she manage to like her own company? It was a question Louise wouldn’t have known how to answer then, but it was as pertinent a question anyone had ever asked her, and so she would think about it frequently. Over the last few years she had arrived at various conclusions, but none of them proved quite satisfying. Perhaps it was because she was surrounded by people when she was young and the comfort of this never quite evaporated enough in all her time alone for her to feel lonely. Maybe it was due to her love of music: how could she feel alone when she put on a song she liked and she was immediately in another’s presence? There were a number of other possibilities that she would think about, but perhaps the most relevant she observed quite recently. Yes, this particular example she had not been oblivious to, but she had never felt it. I asked her what it was, and she said that would have to wait. I never did find out.
Louise and I had been talking over dinner in her flat in the same apartment she had rented from her aunt during university. Her daughter was visiting her parents in Chaville, and she asked me if I ever felt lonely. I had as I’ve said known Louise for only a couple of weeks and this was the first time we had talked about ourselves rather than music or films, books or painting. I told her that, like Elisa, I had no brothers or sisters, and that while I rarely felt lonely as an adult I wondered if I nevertheless carried an echo of that forced solitude from childhood. I had often feared the silence of the house after school, and would dread weekends if I hadn’t arranged a sleep over at a friend’s or at my great aunt’s. Being brought up in London, I went to a primary school next to Finchley High Road but lived in Cricklewood, and so I couldn’t easily visit friends without a lift from my parents, and they were often busy with the house, cleaning or DIY. I was attending a school so far away because it was good for my education, my parents would insist, taking advantage of an aunt who was living within the catchment area and who for bureaucratic reasons I was officially staying with. I don’t think my parents wanted a child, but they did want an offspring, a successful chip of the old block: someone who would continue their immigrant success story. They came over from Ireland after university and never returned except for the briefest of visits; my great aunt their only close relative in London. My childhood for them was a lengthy gestation period; an arduously slow process towards adulthood that would gleefully end when I went to university and would be as intelligent, interesting and as self-made as they believed themselves to be.
I couldn’t avoid the bitterness in the telling, and yet I qualified it by concluding that I thought that perhaps they were right: a child can often distract us from our own adulthood. Louise wondered whether that is exactly what she had refused to let happen with her own daughter: nine years of refusing to be distracted from her own path and purpose. I knew that she had lived for a couple more years in the South, moved back to Paris, did a PhD in musical lyrics, and taught the subject within translation studies at Paris 7. If I had wished for my parents to allow me to stay more often with my great aunt so that I could see my friends, Louise thought that she had far too often left her daughter at her grandparents so that she could busy herself with other activities. She wondered whether she had practised a twofold selfishness. She had an only child, and was sometimes lax in looking after the one she did have.
I hadn’t met her daughter even though that evening was the third time that I had been to the flat. On the first occasion she was at her grandparents; the second she was asleep. Looking around the sitting room I would not have thought that Louise was the mother of a child. This was an attic apartment, with a kitchenette, a dining room, a bedroom and bathroom. At first I had wondered where the daughter slept, and she said her aunt owned several of the chambres de bonne along the landing, and her daughter stayed in the room next door. Did she not worry about her being too isolated I asked? Louise said that she would have the baby monitor on and any noise her daughter made Louise could hear. The place was safe; it had a lock on it. I had the image of each night the daughter’s door being locked like a prison cell, and yet there was nothing in Louise’s demeanour or manner that indicated someone likely to be a neglectful or uncaring mother. The other room’s wall was next to the sitting room, and how many children are brought up in houses where the parents sleep on another floor, far away from their children?
That evening was the first time when we became intimate, and over breakfast there was no sense on her part or mine that the evening had been an awkward error we needed to apologize for or escape from. I wanted to see Louise again, and regularly, and it seemed she wanted to continue seeing me too. But when I expressed an interest in meeting her daughter she said quickly and with a self-protective brutality that none of her lovers had met Marie-Anne and, as I now knew, from the conversation the night before, not even the father of the child had met her. It seemed to me what I had offered was a perfectly reasonable request, but felt in her response like I had made the clumsiest of passes. It was in such moments where I would offer affection, tenderness or concern which was then rejected that I felt the return of a creeping isolation: that moment I would feel on a Friday afternoon after class, or Saturday afternoon playing alone with the football in the front yard or a nearby park. Everybody experiences this I don’t doubt, but perhaps the feeling doesn’t quite get stuck in the crevices of unexplained memory.
Despite Louise’s remark I saw her on a further dozen occasions. I had been in Paris for a couple of months, and would be there for another five, on a sabbatical. I was researching a book whose materials I could have found in London, but the opportunity of a flat swap, and that Paris was the home of the writer whose work I was researching, made it seem appropriate. Louise and I had met because we were both working at the national library, and were on the same metro on several occasions as we got off on the way home at the same station. The disadvantage of going out with someone after chance and convenience has been so kind as to bring you together, is that it can allow for chance and inconvenience just as readily to be equally harsh. But as I would go over to her place on the evenings when her daughter was in Chaville, I could see no reason why we shouldn’t continue our assignations, and what initially looked like a burgeoning relationship, instead took on the character of a discreet affair. Though she had dinner at my flat on a couple of occasions, she always preferred her place, saying that though mine was a nice enough apartment, it lacked individuality. Yet one reason why I took it was because it had far more than my own place in London did. Again I felt bruised and lonely, with purple patches of solitude that Louise this time noticed, saying that she was always too blunt, as she got up, walked behind me, and rustled my rusty toned hair. She wondered as she played with the waves if people happy in their own company were more emotionally brutal than others; as if they were always more interested in saying what they thought than worrying about what the other person might think. Had the sensitivity that had been credited to me by numerous people over the years been no more than a gesture of want; a desire never to be left alone? Is sensitivity a certain type of social survival mechanism: a desire not to lose the company we need to keep? I didn’t voice this thought, but it did make me think for some reason about two people I still hadn’t met; Louise’s daughter and Elisa.
It would have been about four and half months into my stay in Paris when Louise said that while she enjoyed my company she enjoyed her own even more: she would have to stop seeing me. She needed more time for her work; she had as I well knew a deadline for her first book and she was falling behind. She offered this a little less bluntly than I offer it here, telling me on a Saturday afternoon when her daughter was in Chaville, and she looked liked she had just come from the gym I knew she would attend three times a week. I scanned her face as if for the first time believing it was to be the last, and could see that her face had the capacity for charm and cruelty equally distributed. She had arched eyebrows below large, dark brown eyes that looked black in most light, and a mouth wide and pursed, sloping downwards when unanimated. The hair, which was presently in a pony-tail, was long, as black as her eyes seemed to be in a certain light, and what I suppose people would call cascading: it would often fall in her face, be thrown back by her hand, or get mussed up in a moment of irritation. It was hair capable of melodrama.
I suppose I looked so closely at her face because she was unwilling to show anything of her feelings, or perhaps she had no feeling towards me that needed to be shown. We had never talked of love and it was an extended fling that seemed to indicate that any sentiment offered on my part would be taken for overreaction. Yet I didn’t believe then that Louise was without sentiment of her own; it was more that she directed it towards her inner existence and not her outer experiences. Perhaps this will become clear when I talk about the two occasions when I saw her on the street in the neighbourhood; perhaps not. But as we sat in that cafe she may have chosen for its incapacity to generate romance (are there cafes designed to end affairs, just as there are others perfect for embarking on them?) I asked her under the strip lighting and over the thumping musical beat whether we couldn’t continue until I went back to England: wouldn’t that be a more natural time to break-up? I made the offer as if with the nonchalance of the practical, but she easily saw through the emotional weakness it contained. No, she insisted, it was a decision that she had made, and I would have to accept it. It was like being thrown out of a nightclub, and I got up warily as though expecting an arm to be twisted round my back if I didn’t leave straight away. As I left and turned the corner and walked past Louise still sitting there, I expected a curt wave but instead she was looking ahead blankly. She didn’t appear to be ignoring me at all, but fully lost in herself the moment I had got up to go.
Those remaining six weeks in Paris were given over to work during the day and walking around and sitting in cafe terraces during the evening. I had made no good friends in the city, and nobody I knew well enough to inflict a lugubrious personality upon. Watching other people as I would walk or sit seemed more useful than trying to talk to acquaintances about my mood. Over the following few weeks I watched many people, as I would see how couples accommodated each other, parents would interact with their children, friends laugh and argue. During this time I saw Louise twice in the neighbourhood. The first time was with her daughter, and the second was with a friend I thought might have been Elisa. Louise was sitting with Marie-Anne on the quai de Valmy on the Canal St Martin. This would have been late May, the weather was cool and the sun intermittent. A few people were on the quai but it still felt like early spring rather than the beginnings of summer, and as I crossed one of the bridges walking back to the flat, I looked down and saw them eating as if in an outdoor hurry rather than taking a picnic. Louise was already clearing things away while Marie-Anne, wearing a green dress and with copper red hair illustrating a debt to the father that she had never known, was still eating, and her daughter looked preoccupied with a thought that had little to do with the moment. There was nothing cruel or insensitive in Louise’s reactions, yet perhaps because I had seen on a few occasions Louise’s impatient need to get me out of the flat so that she could concentrate on her work, so I sensed that I saw it here too with her own daughter. They walked off before I did, and I watched as they hurried in the direction of La Republique: was she again bundling her up and off to stay with her grandparents?
The next time I saw Louise I was coming along a side road near the canal, and could see her sitting on the terrace of a cafe with the friend looking as though she were beseechingly trying to tell Louise something, and Louise looking straight ahead, refusing to listen or concerned with a problem greater than her friend was offering. Crossing the road it would not have been difficult for Louise to recognize me if she was paying attention to anything in front of her eyes rather than whatever was occupying her thoughts. The friend I saw at a slight angle but could make out her features easily enough, and though Louise had never described Elisa to me, her comments matched the person’s body language. Elisa was sensitive and caring, always trying to help other people work out their problems while believing her own were trivial; someone who lacked arrogance or pride. When Louise had told me this she did so with an appraisal of a friend that contained within it the acknowledgement of self-criticism, and I remember hugging her and saying she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. You are right she said, but that wasn’t the point: she needed to be softer on others. She followed by saying especially her own daughter, and then when it looked as though I would enquire further, she looked at me, a brief stare that said a momentary confession needn’t be an opportunity for someone else to violate her with questions.
It would have been around a week before returning to London that I saw Marie-Anne again, but this time not with her mother, but what looked like the same woman I saw Louise with at the cafe, presumably Elisa. It was now mid-June, and each evening I would return from the national library by foot. I would watch relationships developing, others breaking up, and saw in Paris a city where the most intimate of feelings were given a more public dimension than in London. I even saw one couple from months earlier who were bickering like they were acrimoniously sharing the spoils of a failed relationship (who gets which books; which items of furniture?) looking like they were going to start over. What had happened in the intervening months I wondered, as I nevertheless felt I knew more about this couple whose names of course I didn’t even know, than the emotional intricacies of some friends in London.
I saw Marie-Anne and Elisa near where I had seen Marie-Anne and her mother, and watched them from the same spot and less guardedly than on the previous occasion: after all, I was but a stranger looking down from a bridge. If they had been strangers to me I would have assumed it was a breathlessly proud mother doting on her daughter, with the woman attentive to the young girl’s needs and also her remarks. When at one moment Marie-Anne pointed at some pigeons, Elisa listened with the attentiveness of someone receiving great erudition. At another, Marie-Anne smeared her mouth with ice-cream and Elisa plunged into her bag and swiftly produced a tissue and wiped the girl’s mouth. I watched them for a further ten minutes, then went along to a nearby bakery, purchased a baguette, a slab of cheese and some tomatoes from the mini-market next door, and decided to sit on the opposite side of the canal to where they were sitting.
While walking back from the shops I recalled the question I had asked Louise and for which she had no answer. What had changed; why had she been unable to see much of her family and instead sought solitude? I thought that perhaps again she would seek this isolation, that just as she retreated from her family, chose to have nothing to do with the father of her child, and could see that I was becoming a nuisance, would she now desert her daughter as well, and without quite knowing why she was doing so? Perhaps we don’t need reasons to leave others; we merely need the security to assume that we will never be alone even if we choose to forego friends and lovers. I remembered then one of the songs she was translating a few weeks earlier. Its lyrics included a line about loneliness coming in many forms but none more so than the solitude of a solitary childhood. After taking a seat on the quai, across from these two only children an only child myself, I also thought about Marie-Anne’s copper tinged hair like my own, and wondered if that day where Louise played with my hair, and that was one of the most pleasant of memories I have of my time with her, she was also in tactile memory playing with her daughter’s or even the hair of the father of her child. Her capacity to disappear into her own mind sometimes made we wonder where that mind would go? I thought then not of Louise finishing her book, but whether Marie-Anne’s father had ever finished his, whether he had ever mastered that accent on the page that probably wouldn’t be too dissimilar to my now late great aunt’s. I thought too that if the book had been published, whether his daughter might ever read it. It was at that moment Marie-Anne started tugging at Elisa’s hand presumably telling her it was time to go. Elisa sat there looking as if she could be in this moment where the sun was setting in the distance, where the city sounds were quietening down and where more people were arriving at the quai with wine, baguettes, fruit and cheese, for hours. I wanted to stay there for hours myself, watching them, and ached with solitude as they got up to leave.