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The Bike

 

1

Perhaps this is a story of a man not so much in two minds but having on his mind a couple of people one weekend when he might have thought he was losing the one mind he had. Before going down to London for a few days, he had attached his bike to a set of railings near the train station in Edinburgh. When he returned, not only was the bike missing, but the railings also. It would happen sometimes that he would lock his bike somewhere and try and recall where he might have left it. But a minute or two glancing around, walking up and down the street, as memory mingled with spatial scanning, would lead him to find the bike. This time the memory of where it should have been was vivid, but the evidence suggested his recollection was a fiction: there were no railings to which a bike could be attached.

For the next fifteen minutes he walked along the street, despite the freezing temperature, checking all the other available railings, and even crossed the road and into the station where there were further bike parking places. Usually that is where he would park when going down south or up north, but he recalled that before going away this time there were no places available, and he had to go back out of the station up onto the main road, and park the bike to those missing railings. The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that he had attached the bike to railings that were non-existent. Mostly he would find time and space coexisted, and when they didn’t it had been only for a minute or two as he would bring the two together and realize, either through memory, or through looking a little harder, where the object happened to be. This time, though, he wondered if he was going a little mad. What is madness after all, but frequently the gap between what one thinks and what one sees? When he would be shaken by seeing what he thought was a strange body in his flat while closer inspection revealed it to be his jacket hanging on the hook, his misapprehension was brief and his well-being quickly restored. But if such a feeling were sustained, would it not pass for insanity?

2

Paul remembered many years earlier having an argument with a friend who insisted that he had watched a film programme some years before where the presenter talked of Conrad Veidt’s role in Star Wars, and Paul told him that couldn’t have been possible. Conrad Veidt died in 1942. It didn’t matter how many reference books Paul would show him to prove that Veidt had died thirty five years before the film came out, the friend refused to accept the faultiness of his memory in the face of factual evidence, and it was the final act of egotism in a friendship that had to end. Paul would sometimes wonder what happened to him, whether he still insisted on privileging memory over fact when reality contradicted his recollections, but that day where Paul couldn’t find his bike was the first time he did so with understanding. As he walked home irritated that he had lost his bike but more than fretful he might be losing his mind, so he kept adding more and more details to the memory that made him certain he had left the bike exactly where his mind suggested he had.

Generally when returning to Edinburgh from wherever Paul had been he would feel a sense of well-being, a reassuring belief that he was where he ought to be. He would have no hesitation over which street to take, would say hello to one or two people on his way back to the flat whom he seemed invariably to see as if they had been placed there to make him feel at home, and would pick up some groceries in a shop that always had the basic ingredients he would need. But it was as if this time the missing bike was a forewarning to a very quiet collapse.

3

He didn’t see anybody familiar as he walked back up the mound, across the High Street, along the George IV Bridge, and the shop he would usually go to was closed: due to unforeseen circumstances it said. When he arrived at his flat not far from the shop his key didn’t immediately and smoothly open the door, and he had to fiddle around for a minute trying to get it to click into place. At one moment a neighbour came out, and while he expected to see someone familiar he was instead met by a stranger: a broad-chested fellow who was presumably the neighbour’s new boyfriend, and who had found an opportunity to assert himself and impress his new lover by opening the door and scowling at Paul, saying that he hoped that Paul had the right flat. Usually Paul would have confidently asserted that this was obviously his apartment and if anyone was a stranger round here it would have been this other man who perhaps ought to justify himself. Paul had long possessed the ability to confront confrontation, to stay centred, calm and assured whenever an accusation has been levelled at him, and he used to joke with friends that one reason he never stole was that even if he didn’t have a problem with thieving, he hated the idea of being caught. Of course they would say; everybody does. But Paul added this had nothing to do with being put in jail, or fined, or having a criminal record: it concerned that initial moment of knowing that another person could justifiably belittle him. Equally, whenever somebody asked him about a piece of information, he would offer it tentatively even if he was almost certain. He loathed the idea that a person could correct him if he was wrong.

Yet it was as though for all Paul’s tentativeness in certain situations, for all his need to stay within the law, this was all predicated on the belief that the world made sense and his purpose was to play fair to the sense that the world made. It was consequently why he also never lied. He assumed that, since there were laws concerning time and space, a lie was somehow to risk this stability. Obviously any act of dishonesty on Paul’s part wasn’t going to contradict Newtonian physics, but maybe enough lies, to enough people, would destabilize the psychic universe, a universe that wasn’t stable because it wasn’t actual: and so where if we drop an apple it will fall to the ground, with a lie, we can make that apple stay in the air.

Perhaps this is not quite clear,  but maybe things will become clearer if one says a little about where Paul happened to have been for those few days while the bike was attached to ‘those’ railings. For the last year he had been going out with a woman in her early twenties (Paul is in his late thirties), and they met with the aid of a lie. Paul was with a couple of friends in a pub not far from Euston station and at a nearby table sat a woman with a man who seemed to be her partner, and another couple of men also. Paul would glance across occasionally, and she would look back, look bashful, and look down. Her partner was locked in a conversation as if in an arm wrestle with one of the others, and he looked like a man for whom his partner’s presence stimulated him but whose company, at that moment, did not. He would occasionally offer a gesture that showed he cared, but it was if he were stroking a cat or holding a baby: he was attending to her need for affection but not at all to the demands of her personality.

Paul got up to go to the bar and a moment later standing next to him was the woman, also ordering drinks. She asked him if he was usually in the habit of staring across at women who were with other men, and said it half-looking at Paul, or rather half-looking at Paul in side elevation and frontally through the mirror behind the bar. For the briefest of moments as he looked at them through the mirror Paul thought they would make a good couple, as he could see them together in this moment as he had seen her minutes earlier with her partner: were Paul and her not more suited? He didn’t express this thought but it is as if she sensed it, and looked again at the mirror as though to see if she agreed. Paul could also see through the mirror behind them her partner oblivious to his partner’s presence at the bar, and asked her whether she liked poetry. Was he about to recite a poem to her she asked, laughing. Paul said he wasn’t much of a poet but he knew somebody who was – they were going to a reading later that evening if she wanted to come.  She asked if this was an exclusive invite, or were the others at her table invited also. That she said the others, rather than her partner and his friends, seemed to suggest she didn’t want the invite to be extended, and so Paul said it was an invite for one. He gave her the address of the nearby pub, and she said she would give it some thought as her drinks arrived at the bar before Paul’s. She took the tray with four drinks on it and, before returning to the others, said, “I’m Melanie”.

4

An hour later Paul and his friends were in the other pub, waiting for the poet to perform, and Melanie walked in on her own, up to Paul’s table and said hi to them all. She did so in a manner that indicated that she and Paul already knew each other, and the two friends Paul was with presumably had not earlier seen her sitting at the table nearby, or noticed her when she had gone up to the bar. After insisting on going up and getting her own drink, when she came back they asked her how Paul and Melanie knew each other, and she replied that they had known each other for a while. Paul didn’t know then whether she wanted to play with the ambiguity of knowing him in the sexual sense or the idea of knowing him for some time. He would soon realize that she did not intend for any assumption to hold; more that she liked to play with the idea of what assumptions she might be able to create around anything she said. A while later, after Melanie went off to the ladies’ room, the friends assumed that Paul was both sleeping with her and had known her for longer than that evening. As they both wondered for how long Paul and Melanie had been sleeping together, so Paul didn’t quite know what to tell them: Melanie’s ambiguous remarks suddenly seemed more authentic than the reality; which appeared more absurd. He said that she would no doubt tell them herself, and so when she came back they asked again and she replied that they had met some months earlier at a friend’s party. What was his name again, she asked Paul, and Paul thought of the only London friend that he knew who didn’t at all know Mike and Samuel. She seemed impressed by Paul’s capacity for improvisatory invention, and gently gripped his knee, a gesture Mike and Samuel seemed to notice, and presumably read as a gesture of familiarity rather than prompt complicity at their expense.

5

That night, though Paul was ostensibly in London visiting his father, he went back to Melanie’s. Like his father’s place, it was a council flat, a flat that thirty years ago would have been an acceptable place to live, but now a social luxury. His father’s was in Swiss Cottage; hers in Islington: both desirable parts of London. He would visit his father several times a year now his mother was dead, and had long since forgiven him for leaving her for a couple of years when Paul was a teenager. His father would not, he felt, miss his presence that night. As Paul followed behind her, she turned the light on in the hall and several lamps throughout the apartment lit up. She said she hated overhead lighting, saying it lacked intimacy, and then kissed him on the lips. After having sex they talked for several hours, with Melanie telling him about various details that may have been true or completely fictitious, but that were offered with a capacity for intimacy many honest people don’t seem to possess no matter the truth of their words. When Paul asked her about her boyfriend, she said he was not a boyfriend but a very reliable friend whom she happened sometimes to sleep with, perhaps as a reward. He was a good man. She said, when she was looking across at Paul in the bar, he was engaged in a conversation about politics and justice, one of the few subjects that might make him slightly less attentive to her than usual, even if he would still make sure she was okay with the delicacy of his touch. Paul asked her if that was what she was rewarding him for, and she said yes, for his affection, his love, his concern. She would make love to him differently than with someone to whom she was instantly attracted; but that didn’t mean she did so out of duty or obligation. There was no vanity involved in what she had with this man whose name was Simon: she felt as comfortable with him as if she were on her own.  As Paul lay next to her he wondered whether what she was telling him was the truth that would make them closer, or an elaborate lie to create distance between them, but what he couldn’t deny was that it felt intimate: a word that he had always defined as the capacity to be where one most completely wants to be at any given moment, and there was nowhere else that he would have wanted to have been more then than in Melanie’s bed. He asked her how she managed to get a council flat in London, and she said that an ex-lover who was in Nepal had sublet it to her very cheaply. He wanted to ask her more questions, but she smiled as if to say what she had told him might not quite have been the truth, and she was too tired to embellish the remark with more fiction.

6

Over the next few months he visited her often but she never once came up to see Paul in Edinburgh. He asked if she wouldn’t like to see Scotland, and she said that there was no reason when he wanted to come and visit her, and also see his father.  Melanie would often couch a problem of sensitivity within the context of practicalities, and he was sure there were many people she had hurt through a simple and dismissive remark. Where Paul might have expected, or at least hoped for, her to reply that of course she would love to come to Scotland, and that it was unfair that he would always come down, she just said what she said and there was no reason for further discussion. He remembered on maybe his third visit asking whether she had seen Simon at all. Paul asked not out of jealousy (she said that after his first visit they met up and she explained to him that she was now seeing someone else), more out of empathy: Paul had thought a lot about what Melanie had said concerning Simon’s capacity to make her feel comfortable, and wondered how he was coping since they had split-up. She said they had talked a week or so earlier and she had asked him how he was and he said that he missed her immensely. She said he needed to start an affair with someone else; that was the best way to get over her she believed. Paul wondered aloud whether it might be the best way for her – best from the point of view of her no longer worrying at all about Simon, and also from the point of view of an approach that she would take concerning herself.

On that first night in her place she had told Paul about one man that she couldn’t get out of her mind for a year, and only found that she eventually could do so because of the accumulated lovers she would take that eradicated the man from her thoughts. Paul wondered whether Simon, when asking her about him on that third visit, could so easily sleep with women to make him forget, or whether there might be a dimension to his personality that demanded he would grieve her absence until he could allow another person to be as meaningful to him as she happened to be. She said, perhaps, but in a manner that indicated it was not at all her business how Simon chose to get over her. He also wondered, after that night, whether the man she couldn’t get out of her head was the one who happened to be in Nepal.

Yet while there was a brutality in Melanie, there was also a certain type of sensitivity, an originality even. When they would visit a gallery she would usually make at least a couple of remarks that would resonate. There might be a comment about the use of colour or about the use of line, and the comment would be completely hers and equally one felt coincide with the thoughts of the artist – maybe even thoughts the artist wouldn’t have been able to express. Sometimes when they were out in a cafe she would see in a person’s gesture a detail that would give you what seemed like a deep insight into their personality. Paul couldn’t remember another person who possessed this quality, and it wasn’t until after the bike was stolen, and while thinking of the friend who insisted that Conrad Veidt was still alive, that he knew he had met someone who had the same capacity years before.

Presumably what stopped Paul making the comparison was that the friend was exactly that: a friend; Paul couldn’t see the similarities because Melanie was a lover, but after the bike was stolen, and he remembered this friendship from years earlier, he also started noticing that where it would have been unlikely he could have developed another friendship with someone whose behaviour he found so unreasonable and sometimes irrational, he didn’t see the repetition because this was a relationship instead. It is often remarked that sex can cloud our judgement, but in this instance he couldn’t but deny it had been so: the similarities between Patrick and Melanie were uncanny as he thought about both of them that particular weekend.

7

Paul had met Patrick, who was about three years older than Paul, while doing a college course in the Highlands, after Paul’s parents had sublet their London flat for several years while his father worked building new houses in the area. Paul and Patrick were less interested in the Media Studies that was being taught, than the grant money they would get after their unemployment was threatened with being stopped if they didn’t get a job or do further study. The jobs Paul had taken since leaving school he did do badly that the employers were glad to get rid of him, and he had done them so hopelessly that he couldn’t even feel ashamed at his incompetence. It was funny rather than shameful. It was as if at that time he felt very little shame; that from a conventional viewpoint his incompetence, his unemployment, his indifference towards the course, all indicated an immaturity that he would grow out of into his twenties. Yet during that time, and even now, he was not so sure if it was a question of immaturity, or a grounding in a certain type of sense that was rigorous but not at all socially acceptable. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work; it was more that the skills he seemed to possess (an ability to be articulate, logical and write well) were not qualities anybody wanted to employ him for, and instead the apprenticeships were for trainee mechanics, welders, plumbers, and jobs as barmen, waiters and shop assistants. He had never been good with his hands and always been slightly clumsy, and so the only job he applied for which he thought he could do well was as a postman. It was the only job in which he had to sit an IQ test and though supposedly he scored highly, Paul didn’t get it. Did they give it someone with a higher IQ still, or did they fear that since his Intelligent Quotient was that of a professional, they thought it wouldn’t be a job Paul would stay in for very long? He didn’t know, but of the thirty jobs he applied for or took after leaving school, and before doing the media course, it was the only one he thought he could have done that would have been a proper contribution to society.

One offers the above to show that while Paul wasn’t keen to work for the sake of employment, he was willing to work if he could see that the work was at least meaningful to him; he believed that working as a postman would satisfy a need for the peripatetic,  for getting up early and for responsibility: a postman’s job is nothing if not responsible, and when in the interview they told him one postman was fired since he would only deliver some of the letters, he was more indignant than his interviewers.

Eventually, then, Paul went on to the college course, and met Patrick. Patrick often had an unusual perspective couched within humour. There would be some small tic that one of the tutors would have, and Patrick had the knack of copying it and then exaggerating it. They had one, fussy, pedantic and sometimes derogatory tutor who was conspicuously (or perhaps inconspicuously) small, and Patrick noticed that whenever any of the male students would go up to the tutor as the class finished, he would move from the blackboard to his chair, and sit down and talk to the student who would still be standing up. Patrick decided it must be that he was afraid of heights: his own. He was so small he had to avoid any form of confrontation with that smallness. At the break, if the teacher left the room, Patrick and Paul would hyperbolize the teacher’s insecurity with Paul as a pupil and Patrick as the teacher: as Paul would come up to ask him a question, Patrick would move from the blackboard to the table, standing on it and conduct the conversation from on high. The other students would laugh, and laugh again when the tutor came back into the room, and then laugh loudest whenever someone would go up and ask the tutor a question and he would sit down in his chair. Cruel, perhaps, but surely quite harmless Paul remembered thinking at the time, but when Paul told Patrick of the postie who would only post some of the letters in his bag, Patrick laughed louder than ever, saying he wished he could have got a job like that. Imagine how much havoc you could cause in people’s lives.

When Paul disagreed he asked what had happened to Paul’s sense of humour, and Paul said there was a difference between questioning the pomposity of a tutor who couldn’t deal with his own height, and setting out to destroy people’s emotional and financial lives. Maybe a letter would be from a loved one desperately waiting a reply; or an unemployed person waiting for their giro cheque. Patrick laughed, saying who cares, and believed anything that destroyed this useless society was worth the attempt. Paul would ask him what he believed in, and Patrick looked at Paul as if he had asked if he still expected the tooth fairy to come at night, Santa to deliver presents down the chimney. All he managed to say was that he believed in himself, and not often in that. That Paul could believe: throughout their year in college Patrick had hurt several women. Not necessarily because they fell in love with him, though they appeared to do so, and that they thus hurt themselves, but because he would hurt them as if with pleasure. He finished with one and started seeing her friend, and would kiss the new girl in front of his ex as if gaining more happiness from his ex’s pain than the new girl’s desire.

Yet Paul seemed to accept his ways until, at the end of the course, Patrick insisted an actor from the forties was still alive, and that actor was of course Conrad Veidt and the film that Veidt couldn’t possibly have appeared in was Star Wars. Paul saw then that Patrick was happy to erode not only moral fabrics, but those concerning reason and logic too. Shortly after finishing the course Paul left the Highlands, moved down to Edinburgh,  got a poorly paid job in an advertising firm, and then took a course teaching English as foreign language, and has been teaching it ever since. It was as though Paul gained much of his value system from reacting against Patrick’s. He was no longer so cynical or pragmatic, and tried to find in those years a set of beliefs based as close to reason as he could manage. Whether it was with students or with women that Paul was seeing, whether with his colleagues, or his employers, he would try and act with reasonableness, through a combination of reason and fairness, qualities Patrick had paradoxically taught him more than anyone else.

8

However, it was as though when he started seeing Melanie those lessons had over a few months been forgotten. From the moment when she stood next to Paul at the bar he should have said it wasn’t fair flirting with him when she ought to be back at the table with her boyfriend. That he didn’t, seemed to create a tear in the fabric of his moral beliefs, beliefs that that had been carefully woven over fifteen years into what he thought was a tight weave. One uses metaphorical language as a means to understand how that belief system after knowing Patrick was shaped, and even why it needed to be. With the women Patrick treated badly Paul was sure they possessed a strong enough value system, but that was overridden by their feelings for Patrick: they would have temporarily lost their head over him, perhaps acted out of character and in desperation. He would sometimes tell Paul that he would ask one of them to shoplift for him, to tell a deliberate and hurtful lie to someone they cared about, to flirt with someone else to extract a feeling that they could then promptly ignore. He got a thrill, Patrick admitted, in seeing these well-brought up girls doing things they would never have done before and would regret afterwards: it was like possessing someone, or like hypnosis. What is power worth, Patrick would sometimes, say, unless you can abuse it?

Paul was not in love with Patrick, but maybe was more influenced by his attitude than anyone else for this very reason: Patrick saw the world cynically but also consistently, it seemed. After all, an affair of his father’s during Paul’s early teens that we have already alluded to, had left him angry for years, no matter the puerile cynicism that came out of this judgement, and it was as if judging Patrick eventually freed him from it. Initially when Paul first told Patrick what happened  – that his father had left his wife and his kids –  he said Paul shouldn’t expect anything more from people: always assume the worst of others and you will not only rarely be disappointed, but usually proved right. Paul supposed he was attracted to that cynicism, and it augmented the values rather than shaped them. However, with some of the girls that year they simply loved Patrick, even though they would have disagreed with much that he thought and believed, while Paul often liked what he had to say. He seemed to admire his world-view, as though it gave perverse meaning to rage that he hadn’t processed during his teens.

Patrick was of course physically attractive, like Melanie. But Patrick was a man, Paul heterosexual, and so Paul’s sexual inclination protected him from delusion: Paul’s interest in Patrick’ attitude was often consistent with what he was seeking in his own. Melanie’s was detrimental to it, but the attraction was there. When Paul thought about them that weekend with the bike missing, he could see they might have been brother and sister, or maybe aesthetically the perfect couple. Patrick was of average height and with proportions and symmetry that made him charming without effort: his hazel eyes were wide apart, and his mouth offered a ready and open smile that only turned into a sneer when the mood demanded it. He often wore red and black, which brought out his black hair and lightly reddish lips, and his skin was brilliantly pale in the winter and yet tanned easily in the summer. One could describe Melanie, but there would be a strong element of tautology. That weekend when the bike went missing, Paul searched out a couple of group pictures from the course, with Patrick standing at the front of the class, and compared it to some pictures of Melanie that he had on his phone. They did look like they could have been brother or sister, or a father and his daughter – which would have been almost possible had Patrick been a father at the age that Paul had known him. That weekend Paul’s weak hold on reality was half-willing to accept its possibility, as he wondered whether it would have been viable that Patrick was Melanie’s father, and that Paul was caught in a horrible trap where the father many years before had led him to make some dubious ethical choices based on Paul’s own suspect beliefs, and then many years later the daughter had led him away from his own apparent ethical certainty through desire.

It was as though the mysterious absence of the bike forced Paul to ask hypothetical questions that had nothing to do with the bicycle, but instead with his own more general existence. As he thought about the similarities between a man he had hardly thought of for more than a decade and a half, and a woman he couldn’t easily get out of his mind for more than twenty minutes, so the two kept coming together in Paul’s entangled thoughts, and he knew he would need to finish with Melanie. Though they had texted back and forth on his return to Edinburgh, he hadn’t talked to her since leaving London, and it was Sunday afternoon when Paul phoned her to say that he wanted to end their affair. Melanie replied not as he expected, agreeing and adding that he was a casual fling and that it wouldn’t be a loss, but by quietly crying initially and then accusing him of using her for sex, always knowing that he didn’t want it to last.

Perhaps Paul should have been less surprised if he had recalled how his friendship with Patrick had ended. It was one afternoon when Patrick and Paul were on the way to lunch and they passed the main bookstore in the town, and Paul said they should go and look up Conrad Veidt in a couple of the film reference books. He said why not, sure that he was right about the actor appearing in Star Wars, and as they looked in one reference book, and then another, and then a third, so Patrick insisted that he was right to remember the TV critic stating that the actor was in the film. Paul said there were three books all insisting he died in 1942, and surely he had to accept that this fact was stronger than his memory. No, he said, nothing can be stronger than that. He looked at Paul with fear, as though Paul’s quibble over a fact would destroy the edifice that was his personality. Paul thought then that if he happened to build a jaundiced perspective on a few details from his own biography, what had Patrick built his on? Paul never knew very much about his background; knew only that Patrick moved north for the course, and to get away from Glasgow, a city and a past he only ever talked about elliptically. Perhaps Paul didn’t need to know too much about his earlier life, and assumed that if a few ruptures in Paul’s could lead to a misguided belief system, what might Patrick’s have been like to generate one much more dubiously personal and selfish? That afternoon in the bookshop, Paul wasn’t sure whether he was scared of Patrick or for him, or for sanity itself if so much could dissolve on the basis of an argument.

During the last few weeks of the course, Paul turned down suggestions for lunch, intimations of a drink in the evening, and Patrick was beseeching and winy as he wondered what had gone wrong. After a week, though, Paul watched as Patrick started seeing someone from another class, someone that was doing the art course. Paul noticed also when he saw them together in the canteen that he treated her as he treated others: with contempt and authority. A couple of times Paul saw them in the canteen, a distance away, and watched as Patrick asked her to go and get him some cutlery from the counter. When she came he shook his head and asked her to go and get a spoon instead of a fork. He recalled Patrick doing the same with another girlfriend earlier that year, and giggling to Paul as he insisted she would do anything for him. Paul had no need for remorse ending this friendship.

It was a memory that came to mind when that Sunday evening trying to sleep Paul thought of Melanie’s tears, and a text she sent him afterwards saying that she very much cared about him even if she hadn’t always shown it. Paul also remembered a comment she made, months earlier, one that now reminded him also of a remark by Patrick. She never loved anybody more than herself, she had said, even the man who broke her heart, but didn’t even like herself very much. How much love could she then plausibly give, she wondered? Patrick had told Paul that he needed someone with as much self-loathing as he possessed for a relationship to be equal. In the years between distancing himself from Patrick and seeing Melanie, Paul liked others and liked himself. He looked for the best of motives in people and searched out his best motives also. Yet during this time he never became very close to anyone, though he felt happy with occasional lovers, regular work and paying the mortgage on his small flat. Were his most intense encounters with Patrick and Melanie; were they closer to him than others that he could respect much more and who added to his well-being? Paul thought again of the evening when he first met Melanie, sitting with friends he half-ignored as he looked over at her. These were friends he liked, people he had known for more than five years, people with whom he had taught English in a school in Edinburgh before they moved down to London. He enjoyed their company but could be easily distracted from it, as if they could never quite hold his attention, and though he would look forward to seeing them, and was pleased afterwards that he had shared time with them, he rarely remembered anything they said. With Patrick and Melanie he was attentive. They held his attention. So often attentive is a word used to indicate the decency of the one who attends, but what happens if there are people with whom one cannot unequivocally focus one’s mind? Are we inattentive, or are they ‘inattendable’?

Late that Sunday night Melanie sent Paul a text saying that she wanted to visit him in Edinburgh, and he decided for the first time in many years to be superstitious. He thought that if the bike happened to be where it ought to be the next morning he would continue seeing Melanie, and if it weren’t then he should take it as symbol of an irrational world that he needed to avoid, settling instead for the steady, reliable people that he mainly knew in his life – people like Mike and Sam, his now very frail father, his coercively moral sister, and some friends he had in Edinburgh – and avoid people whose vital force augmented his own but undermined this need to be fair. Was superstition Paul’s attempt to try and find a higher fairness, no matter how childish it might have seemed?

Paul didn’t text Melanie back that evening nor the next morning. He taught at a language school that was near the High Street, about a mile from his flat and half a mile from where he had locked his bike, and decided that during the lunch break he would walk the further half mile and see whether it had been strangely returned, along with the railings. It was the first class after the New Year, and some of the students were returning from the previous terms; others were new. It was an advanced class: it was easy to allow his thoughts to drift as he set them a topic of conversation based on an article he had them read, and corrected their English as they talked. He even managed a quick glance at his phone and saw another text from Melanie, saying that she could stay in Edinburgh indefinitely. He thought again of her reaction to Simon, to the notion that he would find another girlfriend and thus be able to forget her, and yet here she was not at all forgetting him. Was he somebody she pragmatically allowed to share her bed and a few of her intimate secrets, or did she love him? Could he help her turn that intense self-absorption into fellow-feeling and love, and wasn’t she not much older now than Paul was when he distanced himself from Patrick? As he looked again at his phone and saw it was twelve, he said to the students that he would see them the following morning, and perhaps they would continue the conversation themselves over lunch. Paul put on his jacket, his gloves, his hat and his scarf, and walked along the road, down the High Street, noticing the shop that had been closed was now open, and down again the winding street that lead to the train station. Three quarters of the way along he could see not only the railings, but also the bike attached to them, and wondered whether he had gone a little mad all over again. But as he went to unlock it, Paul noticed that there was also a sign saying that the railings were temporary, and were removed during certain festivities, including Christmas, New Year and the Edinburgh Festival. It is a sign he had never noticed before, and supposed he had no reason to do so. Its presence there was like a gift, a sign of sanity indeed, and Paul mused over whether it would be a further sign of well-being or its opposite as he texted Melanie saying that he would very much like to see her in Edinburgh soon while wondering whether a lost bike found might be a small victory next to a much bigger defeat. Was this higher reasoning he sought in superstition not a lower victory that he couldn’t quite see? That he didn’t quite know, but he did wonder for the briefest of moments whether the flat owner from Nepal had returned and she was no longer welcome in his apartment, perhaps in his life. It was a cynical thought rather than a superstitious one of course, and he chose to ignore it for the pleasure of reading into signs.

 

©Tony McKibbin