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Still Lives

1

Usually, we expect the writer to play God, but we’re often less than happy when the writer decides to play theorist. Yet I was thinking recently of a relationship somebody had told me about and wondered if to understand it I needed to acknowledge its three components. That there was instant attraction, a very intense sexual bond, and also an unusually profound psychic, even psychoanalytic echo between the two of them.

This friend whom I had known for years, talked to me one afternoon about an experience he had never discussed with anyone else: an affair that lasted seventy-two hours and didn’t directly touch on any aspect of his life: it was as though he could have dreamt it so little impact did it have on his general existence. Yet at the same time it was an experience he would never forget, almost certainly never repeat, and somehow made all his other relationships, much more publicly acknowledged, appear diluted. He supposed he could have gone to his grave with this story, but instead he wanted to put it to rest in a piece that I would write if the tale interested me. It did.

Stefan, half English-half German, was working as an interpreter and translator in Edinburgh during the International Festival one August. He had studied in the city but had been based in Germany for several years. This had been his first time back since graduating, and after the festival he stayed for another ten days, taking time to wander around the city and reacquaint himself with a place that he was too busy to attend to during his first weeks there. He absorbed its tranquillity after the festival bustle; walked along streets he felt like he had to himself, and attended to buildings, nature and even people’s faces as though they asked nothing in return. Everything seemed to be still after the earlier freneticism, and it made him melancholic. He offered it to himself as a formula: frenetic movement suggests anxiety; stillness melancholia. One indicates the world is moving through us; the other that we are moving through it. All sorts of memories came back to him, including the five close friends he had known there and who were no longer in Edinburgh. He thought about contacting a couple of acquaintances who had almost certainly stayed and whose email addresses he still had, but believed it might somehow belittle his experience of the city. He would prefer to think about the people with whom he had been close, rather than share a few casual anecdotes with people he would merely be refamiliarising himself with.

Stefan earned his money as a translator and interpreter, but he was also a painter, someone who believed that the art of the still life had never gone away and that the essence of it resided in finding the being of objects. Most of the time objects are being used, just as subjects are utilising, and the hectic bustle of the world lies in this constant sense of man using objects and objects being functional. What he liked about the city just after the festival was this sense of it as a still life, and of course, he said, he painted two canvases whilst there. I’d seen many of his paintings, and had two of them in my flat in Berlin, the city in which we both now live: Stefan alone; I with my partner and young son. I sometimes feel when I look at these paintings that they reflect something of Stefan too, alone in his apartment, most of the time, I assume, in a state of contemplation. He has had girlfriends, of course, at university back in Edinburgh, and here in Berlin, but in both places he has always lived alone. In Edinburgh, while the rest of us were in big flat shares, he rented a room with a kitchen area, and a bathroom in the hall. In Berlin he rents a much bigger space, but still not big enough, he would sometimes claim, for two. I have often seen his existence itself as something of a still life.

2

Near the end of his stay that summer in Edinburgh he was walking through the Botanical Gardens when he passed someone who seemed familiar while at the same time so obviously a stranger. He rarely smiled at people he passed, but on this occasion he did as he wondered if perhaps he had seen her on the periphery of his consciousness over the last few days. He then saw her sitting outside at a cafe the following cool but sunny day in the same part of town, and decided to stop and take a coffee himself. There were four tables outside, two on each side of the cafe’s entrance. She was seated at one end and he took the available table at the other. She had been intently reading a book as he ordered, and still seemed to be when he took a seat at the table, but after twenty minutes, the other two tables had become vacant, and she looked across, recognised him, and smiled. He smiled back and might have talked to her if it weren’t for the trundling traffic crawling along the cobbled streets. He had been reading too, and immersed himself once again in the book but with his head not so buried in it that he wasn’t constantly aware of her presence.

It was then that nature came to his aid as the sun was blocked by the trees where he was sitting, and he knew that in any circumstances if a table still in the sun were free he would take it over one that wasn’t. He had often in the past been annoyed at this aspect of Scottish weather, where you would be sitting outside in the sun and it would disappear behind a tree or a cloud and the warmth would decrease, but on this day he took advantage of the temperamental temperature, as he went to sit at the table next to her. She smiled again and said ‘Scottish weather’, a remark that suggested she wasn’t simply passing through the city but perhaps had been living in it for a while. Yet there are certain people we see passing through a place and we assume that they are tourists or lonely, or perhaps both. It is hard to explain what allows for this impression to form, but it is as though an aspect of the place doesn’t quite seem to cling to the person, or that they don’t quite seem useful to the city. Most people would be working, meeting friends, on their way to or from a sporting activity, and everything in their being suggested a familiarity with the environment. And then there were the others who did not. He thought at that moment of still lifes, of people not quite interacting with their world but that were somehow still within it.

3

As she made her remark he looked at her book, said he had read it, but years before, adding that all he remembered was that he liked it and that he recalled just one passage from it: something about a woman’s love for the man she adores being the best part of her, and that she ends up sacrificing herself to the ideal rather than to the man himself. She said that was the very reason she was reading it; that she had read it in the past, and wanted to return to it for that very passage.

She then switched subjects, as if keen to talk but not so keen to talk about herself, and asked what he was reading. He said he was reading not so much the writer as the translator, seeing how the person had taken a complex German prose style and turned it into clear English. There was another book by this writer that hadn’t been translated yet, and he was thinking of sending a proposal. What he didn’t add until a couple of days later was that he was re-reading it for reasons similar to hers; he wanted to return to a book that had for years been on his mind, just as he had been returning to the city. What she hadn’t added and didn’t tell him till after they had slept together was that she was returning to the city also.

From her accent, he could tell that she was Irish, and yet from her looks he would have assumed she was Spanish; and so she told him how she came to look and sound as she did. He said he found it funny how much we reveal of ourselves by the accident of our parenting, and the lack of agency we have in our upbringing, as she asked him where he was from. As they talked about their appearance and their accents, so within an hour, sometimes only half-hearing each other as traffic would often pass, he could feel a tug of intimacy that he knew he wanted to take beyond this cafe conversation.

4

He suggested they go back down to the Botanic gardens, that it was still on summer opening time, and the park would probably be almost empty. It was a ten to fifteen-minute walk from the cafe and during it, he asked her what she did, after explaining his own occupation and preoccupation, while also realising he still hadn’t asked her for her name. She told him she worked in a gallery in Dublin, and he asked if she made art. No, she said, she enjoyed writing up programme notes, would occasionally write an essay for an arts magazine or journal, but she never saw herself as an artist. She would draw, yes, but the way someone would keep a diary or a notebook. She would take impressions of things but had no urge or interest in sharing them with a public. He asked if she would be willing to share them with a ‘private’ – would she show her drawings to him. She proposed that she wouldn’t but what they could do in the gardens is sit for a little while and she would draw something there and then give it to him. He said he would appreciate that, but didn’t tell her that he was an artist, occasionally had a public, and that he would have been pleased to show her his work.

As they entered by a side entrance rather than the main gates, he asked if he could choose the plant she would draw, and she laughed saying this sounded an awful lot like a commission. No, she said she would draw what she would like, and tear it out of her notebook in disappointment, and then hand it to him. It won’t be a gift, she insisted, it will be the opposite: it will be detritus.

He would not understand this gesture until several days later, and still perhaps didn’t understand it fully today, but as they sat next to each other on a slight bank in the Botanics, she concentrated intensely on the process of drawing, while he concentrated no less intently on her. He didn’t seem to exist while she sketched away, and it occurred to him that no one had ever seen him at work; he had never allowed anyone to observe him paint. He had never studied art, never gone to a class, so never had to stand by an easel alongside others as a teacher would stand behind him and see how his work was progressing. At school, he had painted of course, but that didn’t count: he hadn’t decided then to be a painter of still lifes. When that decision was made, at nineteen, the art became his own in its creation, and aimed at others in its reception. There she was, however, insisting reception was not important, but neither was the solitude of creation.

As she finished and tore the page cleanly out of her notebook, he saw that it was the same size as the book he was reading, and slipped the page neatly inside the volume. It would be safe there, he said, and he moved towards giving her a kiss. She ducked her face out of the way and said that it shouldn’t be that easy, or rather it shouldn’t be that obvious. She said probably later that night they would have sex, but she wasn’t interested in creating these incremental gestures of intimacy as if they were the only ones who had ever acted this way.

5

It was at that moment he suspected she was damaged goods, but that she was the sort of person who hadn’t turned that damage into collapse, into self-ruin, but into selfness, in knowing that she had to rebuild a self created by others but that wasn’t quite fit for purpose. Of course, these things were things they would talk about over the next three days, but he intuited them forcefully during those moments in the garden.

As they left he asked what she wanted to do, oddly assuming she still wished to be in his company even if she had rejected his initial pass. She said they should walk a little, and then they could decide. They walked down from the main gate towards Stockbridge, but turned off and along a wooded area next to the canal. It was now almost dark and the path empty. She said she would like sex with him now, and they promptly kissed fercociously before she tugged down his trousers and underwear, and felt his penis hardening in her hand. He lifted up the short skirt she was wearing, and pulled down her panties and her tights, and there they were standing in the middle of the path, aware, perhaps half-hoping, that someone might pass. Their passion was quickly spent, yet the excitement of the encounter still left them half-aroused for the rest of the evening as they ate in an Italian restaurant on Leith Walk, had a drink at the pub on the corner of Elm Row, and then returned to the room he was renting at the other end of this short street. It was a large flat for four, but the others had left after the festival, and the students who had taken the apartment were not moving in for another three days. He had it entirely to himself, and it was in this flat that Tatia (she had whispered her name to him during sex) and he would talk, make love and eat, leaving the apartment only for one long walk, and to pick up food and wine.

As soon as they had passed through the door they were at each other’s throats, but no argument was ensuing, only the licking and gentle biting at each other’s necks, as though the mouth would soon have other purposes. After a couple of minutes, though, she pulled away from him and asked to take a shower, recommending he should take one too. The apartment was big enough for them to do it simultaneously as she popped into one bathroom, and he into another. They both exited at the same time, half dry and their skins fresh after the taste of salt and hint of sweat. He pushed her in the direction of the bedroom, as they found each other’s mouths, both tasting faintly of toothpaste, and she lay down on her front as he started licking his way along her body. Her skin was olive, but of course, that describes a tone which is far removed from the actual colour it happened to be : it was tortilla he supposed, but the tan line suggested she was usually a shade paler.

An hour later they lay on their backs, the cover half pulled up to their thighs, their bodies wet with clean sweat and honest sexual labour. Stefan was half erect, unsure whether he was half-aroused becoming flaccid, or moving again towards arousal. She moved his hand between her legs and he could feel she was still moist.

6

And that was how they spent most of the next three days, eating, talking, and having sex. Once he was moving inside her and she would look at him saying that she needed to talk. He would move to pull out and she would grab his buttocks and thrust him further in. You can talk now, she said, and so he talked, telling her about his childhood, about how he once went into his parents’ bedroom to ask for his pocket money and his father was standing over his mother. He saw a look on his mother’s face that he would not only never forgot; he would see a trace of it on her visage from that moment onwards. Describe it she said as he kept moving inside her, and he said it reminded him of the look on her face now.

It was a look that suggested fear contained by desire, as though his father and mother had a private life they couldn’t even have explained to themselves, let alone to each other and anyone beyond the two of them. He saw in his mother’s face what he assumed was a ferocious complicity since he could not see his father’s face at all, but he would look for it often thereafter, watching the two of them as they would interact, often squabble and occasionally fight, But this look that he saw when he was twelve, seemed to be what made them a couple, more than the child they had, their long term marital status or the house they lived in. And there he was moving inside a woman twenty years later and he saw that look again as they made love.

Afterwards, as she drew circles on his shoulder, and curled the hairs on his chest round her index finger, she told him about a moment when she was about the same age and saw perhaps the opposite of complicity in her parents’ lives. Her father owned amongst other things a video shop in Dublin: he was a businessman who owned two pubs, a restaurant and the video store which was almost a hobby. He would sometimes work in it just so he could get into conversations about movies, which he had always loved, and which they would often watch at home, with the lights off and the phone taken off the hook. One day she accompanied him to the shop and while they were browsing around, seeing what they would take out, a friend came in with a woman who looked many years younger and who wasn’t his wife. She knew this because on a couple of occasions the friend and his wife had come round for dinner, and so she wondered who this woman who would peck him on the cheek happened to be. At one stage the friend went to get something from the car and, during the couple of minutes he was gone, her father talked to the woman and offered gesture she would now describe as affectionate. The woman had straight hair that had the habit of falling into her face, and her father, while talking to her, pushed it to one side as she slipped the stray strands behind her ear.

Later, as she was eating dinner with her parents, she asked her mum, whose hair was lightly permed in that late eighties manner, why she didn’t have straight hair that would flop into her face so her dad could remove it for her. His father glanced at her with a dismayed expression on his face, and her mother looked at her dad with a look she couldn’t have comprehended at the time but would long afterwards define as a confirmed glare: a look that suggested they had argued in the past about his behaviour with other women and that now he was flirting with others in front of his own young daughter. They divorced about five years later, and her father had been with various women since. She sometimes wondered if she hadn’t made that remark over the dinner table whether they would still be together; wondering if her mother would have accepted her dad’s flirtations, his possible adultery, if it didn’t impinge on family life.

As she talked he said she would often refer to her father as dad but always called her mum mother. Sitting up and pulling the duvet over her breasts in a moment of prudery that could only have been a symbol of defensiveness, she said, as if slightly irritated, that this was true: but it would seem to depend on the story she was telling. While she appeared entirely comfortable talking about her past when it conveyed information that was no surprise to her, he noticed during their three days together that whenever he would offer an observation about that past which hadn’t occurred to her, she would react with a defensiveness that in other circumstances could have instigated an argument.

7

Over those seventy-two hours they explored each other’s bodies with a furious curiosity that would usually have taken place over several months. And yet they would also talk about many things: what films they liked, books they adored, paintings they could gaze at for many minutes, and political issues they agreed with or found anathema. He would often feel in her company that she could be capable of turning a discussion into an argument, as if something in her was stopping her from doing so, just as there was a counter impulse insisting that she push towards the argumentative. He recalled one occasion that he believed would have led to a serious disagreement if circumstances had been different; if they had become an established couple. It was on the one afternoon where they left the flat. The sun was out, the clouds looked like they would remain in retreat for a couple of hours, and there seemed to be no wind. She said they needed to walk; they needed another exterior memory: a reference he supposed to their walk around the Botanics. He suggested they meander all the way over to the other side of town, and go up and round the Observatory. They must have walked for about five hours, from two till seven, moving up Leith walk, over the bridges and past the Meadows. Throughout neither made a gesture of holding hands or seeking a hug, nor did either of them take photographs, yet their eyes were constantly searching each other’s out, as if asking for an agreement from the other. When they passed by the Hermitage on their way from Blackford hill to Morningside, they looked at this house in the middle of nature and the complicit look they gave each other was one he rarely saw in people who shared an affinity. Often people would take a photograph, or stand arms around each other looking at a magnificent piece of architecture or landscape, but there they were looking at each other and back at the building. They both understood that complicity needed no touch, needed no technological evidence. He had never found this with anyone else that he had felt close to both before and after meeting her.

Yet forty minutes later they were close to arguing, sitting in a bar at the bottom of Morningside Road, drinking a whisky as the early evening light passed through the windows and revealed dust when someone removed a book from a nearby shelf and the particles whirled after the person had blown on it. She said she didn’t own books; he said he owned hundreds. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t just borrow them from libraries, and as he tried to explain his reasoning he could see that she wasn’t interested at all. She laughed and said this mania for collecting is at the source of political problems: how can one believe in common ownership when you want a personal library? He said he couldn’t recall saying anything about caring for common ownership even if he happened to be in sympathy with many of its tenets, and she replied saying that she suspected he was at best a contradiction and at worst a hypocrite. After a few minutes, he knew that if he kept defending himself the situation would become acrimonious.

He thought a lot about that hint of disagreement which could have led he believed to a vicious argument, and thought how often with friends and girlfriends he had found it easy to talk to about these simple positions, but had never found someone with whom he could share so complicit a look, or so intimate a conversation. It was as though the affair possessed none of the coordinates of what people would usually call a relationship, or perhaps it would have been more useful to believe that it had all of them, and of a very good one, but moved at such a ferocious speed that all possibilities were played out within the three days. As they left the pub after a few minutes of silence, she leaned towards him, kissed him on the cheek and said there was the kiss; now they should make up. They nevertheless didn’t hold hands for the hour-long walk back over to Elm Row, yet they would often look at each other and then look at something, finding humour in small details. Earlier that day they had seen a red children’s bonnet on the way, in Marchmont on a park bench, passed another green one hanging from a tree in the park. As they walked back along through Marchmont they saw the red one still sitting on the bench and they both laughed.

8

The next morning while eating breakfast, she reminded him that she would be flying out early the following afternoon, and asked Stefan why he thought they had argued in the bar. He didn’t quite know, he admitted, without adding that he thought she might, and thus suggesting she was responsible for it. Of course, you don’t know she said, in a tone that he initially took to be patronising but which she promptly explained as an issue of revelation. She said that she had told him half the story: she should have told him it all or said nothing. She said she had told others what she had told him, but always stopped short of saying more, and so there had been, in other relationships, an opening up with personal details in the first week or two, and then withholding the rest throughout the time she was seeing someone. But she had the feeling that they would never see each other again, and perhaps he was the person with whom she should deposit the story. She wouldn’t need to kill the one to whom she confesses, as in legend – merely leave him. Perhaps she hadn’t told any of her boyfriends because she had loved them too much to risk telling them a story that might leave them confused or lead them to leaving, or that she didn’t care about them enough to feel they were entitled to hear the whole tale. Was she telling him because she was falling in love or knowing that she would be leaving him for good the next day? She couldn’t claim to know her own motives, but she did at least know, and remember, the whole story.

She was twelve when she had said to her mum in front of her father that he had brushed the woman’s hair out of her face, and it was about eight months afterwards, after she had turned thirteen and quite suddenly it seemed into the beginnings of a woman, that he tapped on her bedroom door and asked if he could have a word with her. She had noticed in that first couple of months after her disclosure that he had looked at her with anger, yet he had never mentioned the incident again, and in more recent months he had offered a look that was harder to explain but was revealed that early evening in her bedroom. Her mum was picking her brother up from football, and as her father sat down on the bed while she was sitting up with her legs folded under her, he reminded her of what she had said a few months earlier to her mother and wondered whether certain things should have remained between themselves. He said it as though she owed him something in return, and though he didn’t move any closer towards her, she saw in her father’s eyes a look that resembled the one he gave that woman all those months earlier. She found her breath shortening, and her father’s stillness for the first time threatening, and she knew that her father was a man incapable of violence (he had never even shouted at her), but perhaps capable of a greater misdemeanour that usually comes under an antithetical heading. At that moment she heard the front door open and her younger brother throwing his boots into a box in the hall. Her father said he ought to leave the room, and slipped out the bedroom door as quietly as a thief, while she sat there feeling she had been emotionally pickpocketed.

She never felt comfortable again around her father, and would always be careful never to be alone in the house with him. She assumed there were affairs with other women, and just hoped there were never any with young girls. When she was seventeen he left her mum and a few months later moved in with someone else. Now she never sees him, she said, and had no wish to do so, though her brother would still visit him often. Maybe this wasn’t so much of a revelation, after all, she said, but she wasn’t so sure if it didn’t impact on her emotional affairs ever since. Of course with most lovers the sex came early and the affection later, but it was as though her father’s behaviour reversed the process and made her wary of feeling ever since.

Stefan said he had expected a much greater revelation than he received, but he realised that it was perhaps the lack of revelation that made it so revealing. She hadn’t been sexually abused, but the subtlety of the situation seemed to damage an aspect of her personality, and her capacity for feeling: that was what she wanted to convey. Didn’t he wonder if she had been abused, and then flinched from telling him I wondered? It was possible but didn’t seem likely: her personality didn’t suggest a fear of men, or at all a problem with sex. What he sensed right from that moment in the Botanics was a lack of respect for them, an unwillingness to give them much credence. Indeed he expressed this to her after she talked about her father, and she concurred. It wasn’t that she was insecure with men, which would suggest some problem in her perhaps, but that she didn’t trust them, and it manifested itself as contempt. She couldn’t take them seriously, and this is why she deflected his attempt at a pass in the park. Whenever she had ever asked a man she was seeing whether they would wish to sleep with another woman they would always deflect the question. It wasn’t that she was insecure, she insisted; it was that men were not trustworthy. Maybe most women know this, but when you have it in the sinews of your childhood, then it is hard not to see it.

It was then she admitted she had been in Edinburgh three years earlier, and during the festival. She had gone there with a boyfriend who was performing in the fringe, in a play by Edward Bond. They had only been seeing each other for a couple of months before they visited the city, and parted a couple of months after visiting it, and yet it was she supposed the most memorable affair she had ever had. It was as though she returned to the city to find out how much of the memorableness belonged to Edinburgh, since when she would think about him she would think not of their time in Dublin, but of their time in the Scottish capital.

Stefan knew then that their encounter was perhaps for her also an experiment. The previous evening when they had discussed their earlier affairs, she said she had three relationships, but over the last couple of years had slept with men only casually. They could be interested in as many women as they liked; their purpose was to be there with her for just one evening. They could not disappoint her except in bed. She said this with a smile, and he knew that as she talked she would often do so as if both with absolute conviction and also a hint of irony. This didn’t at all make what she was saying insincere. If anything it added to the sincerity by making clear that she knew what she was saying was categorical; that others might think she was exaggerating her case. But the case was hers: it would be an exaggeration if she tried to generalise from her particular instance.

I asked if this is why he was so sure she was telling him everything, and he reckoned that one of the many things she managed to teach him in their three day liaison was that we have too often an experiential notion of reality. That what people say is there to illustrate what they have done: some stories about past experiences they have decided to deposit with you all the better to convey something of themselves that oddly could say no less or more about someone else.

I wasn’t quite sure if I was following Stefan here, and I asked him what he meant by experience, and he laughed saying that is exactly the point. Earlier he had been conveying the experience of being with Tatia, and no doubt when he started detailing what she was thinking then things became harder to follow. What he thought she was trying to do was make singular her experience by making clear that nothing especially extreme had happened to her, but for years she had been trying to figure out what her sense of distrust happened to be about, and that was what she tried to convey to him. When people tell another person anecdotal details of their lives, even the most horrific of them could have happened to someone else. Stefan didn’t want to belittle the most awful instances of suffering, but if a friend had told him that he had lost his brother to a drive-by shooting, then there would have been numerous other people who would have lost a relative similarly. It wouldn’t have made it singular. It is one reason why we find it so easy to understand: it happens to very few but could happen to anybody – it is not at all incomprehensible. Yet what Tatia was conveying was hard to make sense of, and there for him lay its truth.

9

It was in the above remarks that I began to understand why he wanted to tell me, and perhaps why he hoped I would write a story about it, to try and find the singularity of his own experiences in what he saw as my modest abilities as a writer: as someone who did not write stories about large events that were strongly cause and effectual, but about what he nicely called the nuances of singularities. He would sometimes tell me he thought our abilities were quite antithetical and yet similar: that he wanted to look at the one thing and paint it in all its specificity and stillness, while I wished to write about events that couldn’t quite be seen, but that only time could offer a partial perspective upon. I proposed it might be the difference between showing and revealing, and I had always been annoyed by people who would say that in the stories I would reveal too much, when I have often thought this is fiction’s very purpose. Why imitate the screenplay? Fiction writers would often be told show don’t tell, but I have always wondered whether the point is neither to show nor tell but reveal. One might fail in this attempt at revelation but the enterprise shouldn’t be dismissed.

Anyway, these were my thoughts when I talked with him that afternoon, and I asked him then to continue as he told me about their final day and evening together.

He said they didn’t exit the flat at all, except when he briefly popped out to pick up some items for dinner. Instead, they watched a film while lying on the couch as he kept her in a state of constant and mild arousal, playing with her nipple through her negligent negligee, and playing pitter patter with his fingers as they moved up and down her thigh. She would sometimes thrust her bum against his member, and it would twitch to attention. After it, they made love for the second time that day, and by the end of the evening they’d had sex fives times. At one moment she pushed him away as he worked on her with his tongue. She was squirming in a state of pleasure and pain, her nerves now so raw from satiated desire that she couldn’t receive another stroke.

Afterwards, eating dinner, he mentioned again what she had said about her father and men more generally, and wondered if it had similarities with his reluctance to feel comfortable in relationships. He reminded her of his story about his parents, adding that, as he had announced earlier, he was an only child who always felt as if he were intruding on his parents’ life. They weren’t a family; they were a couple who decided to have an offspring. He would often feel that his father, who was a professor, and his mother who taught classics at a private school, never quite found the time for him, and it was as though that day when he walked in on them in the bedroom was a final rejection for him, and a final straw for them. What he meant by this, he said to Tatia, was that he believed his parents had always seen him as a nuisance in relation to their work, but that day he felt no less an obstacle in an area of their life that he couldn’t quite at the time have understood. Perhaps he still didn’t, though it concerned of course sex and desire. It was as though a very delayed primal scene, a traumatic moment that made his existence appear worse than irrelevant; he was in the way. As he got older he increasingly saw life as an issue of whether we are in each other’s way or not, and perhaps why no relationship of his had lasted. After a couple of months, he would find he couldn’t work as he wished, or he would feel in their behaviour that they didn’t want him around. He would end the affair and offer no explanation, except, at best, that the feelings weren’t there.

They awoke late the next morning: it was ten and Tatia’s flight was at two. They showered promptly and simultaneously making necessary use of the two bathrooms, afraid perhaps that if they showered together desire would be enacted once again and a plane missed. She packed her things in ten minutes, and they were out the front door before eleven, walking up Leith Walk and towards the airport bus. She had not noticed that he had placed the two paintings he had worked on before meeting her on the floor of her suitcase, covered by a large sheet of paper. He, of course, hadn’t painted them with anyone in mind, but was relieved that he had chosen small enough canvases so that they would fit neatly into her case. They arrived at the airport by mid-day, and seeing that the security queue was short, took a croissant and a coffee in the cafe. They talked about whether they should remain in contact, and she gave him her parents’ address, and he gave her his parents’ address too. If they needed to write to each other this would be the best way they both agreed: let us make it inconvenient for each other, they insisted, and let us be in contact only out of absolute necessity. They shook hands on that, and kissed for perhaps a minute, perhaps longer, and then she rushed away, claiming she should move quickly, yet half-acknowledging that the hurry was to escape the problem of leaving.

10

That was a decade ago and Stefan hadn’t contacted her since. They knew no one in common, no internet search had offered any information on her, and he did sometimes wonder if those three days had really taken place. He seemed to want me to write the story to give it a validity it might not otherwise have, but here I am writing it up aware that Stefan could have made it up. There is no evidence that Stefan has ever lied to me, and yet this is a sort of negative affirmation: I don’t know whether the story is true, but since there is no suggestion that Stefan has lied before I must assume on no evidence at all that it happens to be. Yet, of course, I am not a journalist reporting an incident, but a writer attempting to shape an anecdote that I can inflect with my own fictional imagination. If I believe Stefan never lies, in asking a fiction writer to work his experiences into a story, is he inviting me to be as imaginative as I like? I think not, just as the story he told me was as much a speculation around the nature of feeling as it happened to be an anecdote about an event that had happened. I suppose he asked me to write it not because of my descriptive abilities, but what he saw as my analytic ones: my interest in extracting from the anecdotal the question that sits within it.

I proposed initially that readers don’t mind writers playing God, but they are resistant to the imposition of ideas in a fictional work. I can only say in my defence I have no thesis here to offer, but I do wonder about the question certain experiences throw up. I write this story in snatched time between running a cafe with my partner and her sister and her sister’s husband, and looking after a four-year old who has no sympathy for a man pointlessly tapping away at a keyboard that makes no musical sound. I suspect one reason why Stefan asked me to write the story was because he knew I hadn’t written anything for a couple of years, not quite finding the time or the inclination: as if he wanted to get me to once again discover the still life within me that would generate the desire to start writing again. I now think again of the formula with which this story started: the instant attraction, the sexual bond and the psychoanalytic dimension. I suppose if I am honest I liked the look of my partner when I first saw her, but there would have been other people at the party that evening in my final year at university I could have just as easily gone out with, and others during my time at uni whom I desired instantly far more. Our sexual life has always been satisfactory, but never startling, and I knew I was envying Stefan his experience, perhaps because I have never quite had one like it of my own. And the psychoanalytic? Maybe my partner and I share a wound that helped bring us together and keeps us from falling apart, but we have never talked about it, or certainly never explored it. Yet we have a son and Stefan has a memory that no one can verify, and yet it is his a story that I can write, and my long-term relationship is nothing, as they say, to write home about. So here I am instead writing about a friend’s brief affair over my own life, and somehow cannot deny that his is valid for literature as my own long term liaison is not. I am not sure if this says more about literature than life, or whether it says too much about my own that I am motivated to write only by a friend’s commission. I am reminded of course of Tatia’s insistence on the detrital, and Stefan’s careful placing of the paintings in her suitcase. Perhaps this story is something in between.

©Tony McKibbin