He met her in a bookstore in the South of France. It had a few hundred English language books that it advertised in the window, but most of the volumes were in French and he wandered round the shop looking at the books with the fascination of someone who was viewing them as aesthetic objects rather than potential subjective entities. He knew a modest amount of French (and Spanish and Italian too), but his main pleasure when going into bookshops in Paris, in Buenos Aires, in Trieste, and now in Montpellier, was looking at how different French, Spanish and Italian books were from English books: especially French ones. They seemed to possess a shape and simplicity that made British books garish and loud. They didn't appear in their cover design and typographical layout to demand to be read. They looked like they had a discretion that meant a reader was invited in but not called at the door. This bookshop itself felt similar: the sign in English saying they had a few hundred English language books was discreetly placed at the lower corner of the window, like somebody had put an ad there for private language tuition, cat sitting or music lessons. When wandering around the shop he felt under no obligation to purchase; there was no sense in which the two members of staff were drumming up business, their fingers pitter-pattering on the counter with an impatience suggesting the hard sell as passive aggression.
Of course, he received a bonjour when he entered but, aside from this acknowledgement, he freely wandered around the shop for twenty minutes without any hint of being harassed and, before leaving, it was a question from him that opened a discussion with one of the staff. He asked her if she had a book by a French writer who had written about his experiences in Scotland. He asked the question in poor French and she replied in clear English. She said she did have a copy but it wouldn't be in translation. He said that would be fine. As she pulled the book off the shelf she asked whether he was Scottish. He replied that he happened to be but was in France giving a paper and looking for his roots. She looked at him oddly and said that one day she would like to go to Scotland and find hers. He noticed a few freckles around her nose, and her hair was auburn, her eyes blue. It didn't seem implausible and he asked her to tell him more. Her great grandfather came from Glasgow to fight for the Communist cause in Spain in the thirties and never went back. He crossed the border back into France and some in the family said that he was involved in the French resistance, others that he collaborated with the Germans, still others (it was a big family she chuckled) that he got married before the start of the war, and looked after a remote farm throughout it. An addition to that rumour was that he occasionally hid Jews trying to cross over into Spain. She admitted she had never really been that interested in finding out more about those years, yet wanted to know more about her Scottish heritage. What everyone in the family agreed upon was that he married her great grandmother before the end of the war, and her grandmother was born just after it.
He said perhaps they could come to some arrangement; that he owned a small flat in Glasgow, and happened to be away several times a year, attending conferences. Indeed that was why he was specifically in Montpellier: to give a talk on Scottish writers in France. As a young academic he was expected to seek every opportunity to read a paper, build up his publications and meet with others in his field. He said it in a way that suggested he believed in what he was doing, but not in the milieu in which he was expected to do it. She said she had escaped from that world and into this bookshop; she had a degree in philosophy but left Paris after it to find a gentler way of thinking. The bookshop and the south helped. She asked him when he would be leaving the city, and he said he was getting a flight the following evening from Paris. The train was the next morning. She asked him whether he would like to get a coffee and she signalled to her colleague, saying that she would be back in twenty minutes: they would be at the cafe on the corner.
They talked for twice that, continuing the discussion from the shop. He wondered if there were different ways in which we can see the past - one as gossip and the other as physiognomy. When she said she was more interested in her Scottish roots than in the family rumours, he supposed that would be an example of the physiognomic. Gossip had its place, he insisted, and much of history and morality is based on it. If we are to understand what happened in the Death camps, in the Vichy government or at the Siege of Leningrad, then we might need gossip to help us to comprehend what happened. He was using the term gossip provocatively and talked about reading an article about the siege that was based on the diaries of various female survivors. In it they talked of people who would swap a fur coat for a few bags of flour, people would eat their dogs, murder someone and cannibalise their body. People would pretend relatives were alive so that they could keep getting their food rations; others were so hungry they would lick wallpaper glue for its calorific content. One could almost hear people talking about these things in the streets of Leningrad in that dreadful winter of 1941, a hushed tone, a look to left and right to see if anyone could overhear. Maybe there would be traces of the physiognomic for generations afterwards, but he supposed she was thinking of the history of one's features. She seemed to want to know about where her nose came from, the colour of her eyes, those freckles.
As Andrew said this he had an urge to touch her cheeks, to kiss Odette's lips, as the voice carried his intention and the colour rose lightly on her face; a sign of attraction or embarrassment, but one unlikely to have been evident had it not been for her Scottish roots. They were sitting outside, but under a plane tree that protected her skin from the sun that his darker complexion could have tolerated, and she asked him where did he think his roots resided, as far south as this? Perhaps he said, as he idly wondered if they might have been related: that perhaps his great-grandfather had fought in the Spanish Civil War too, and that he had taken the darkness of the Mediterranean side of his heritage just as she had taken the northern one. He told her what he knew. His great-grandfather had been in the merchant navy during the thirties, and his last return to Britain was in 1937. Some in the family thought with the start of the war he would probably have failed to reembark at some port in Latin America. Others suggested he signed up immediately and was killed shortly thereafter. In the mid- fifties, an eighteen-year-old woman arrived at his wife's house looking for him. Her great grandmother told her that as far as she knew he was long since dead, and the young woman explained that she was his daughter. Her husband had met her mother in Buenos Aires in the mid-thirties, and had given birth to a daughter, namely the very woman standing in front of her. At least this was how the young woman described it, and indeed described it to Andrew as an old woman, a few years ago, not long before she died: the woman, after all, was his grandmother.
It was as he was saying this that she heard in the distance her shop colleague shouting to her. She looked up at the church clock, saw how long she had been, and said she must rush back. She felt that he had only told half his story; she wanted to hear the rest of it; would he have time later? He looked up at the clock too and said sadly that he didn't think it was possible. He had a drinks reception he really ought to attend, and then a meal after that. He wouldn't be finished before eleven, and would then be getting a train at six. He was about to add that he would still like to see her if that wasn't too late, but by then the expression on her face suggested that he had rejected her proposal, and he didn't know how to express what he wanted to say in the moment they had before she quickly left.
He walked around for half an hour thinking about what he should do, and of course remembered that he had offered her his flat when he would be away. Later that evening, between the reception and the meal, he hurried over to the now closed shop and slipped under the glass door a note. On it he said he would have loved to have talked to her for longer, and maybe they could talk again online. He gave her his house address, email address, mobile number and Skype contact details. He said that she should take his flat if he happened to be away, and search for her roots; that the next time they talked he would tell her more about his family history - gossip and physiognomy.
He received a text the next morning while on the train back to Paris, thanking him very kindly for the offer, to let her know when he was next out of the country and that she could enter it. She ended with an exclamation mark and a kiss, but there was nothing in her text that indicated this had been for her an encounter of any significance.
It would have been around three months later that he was invited to a conference in Seville. The conference was over three days, but he had never before been to the city and thought he would stay for a week. He contacted Odette by email, mentioning when he would be away. She replied within an hour saying that she would check flights that evening and contact him by the next morning. She found a cheap connecting flight to Edinburgh, saying she would book for ten days, since she would also like to tour around a little. She would arrive the day before he was to leave, book into a hostel, and he could show her around if he had time, and to show her the flat, at least, if he didn't. He read into the email that she wanted to see him, but also that she had no romantic inclinations, and he supposed there was no reason why she should. He had spoken to her for less than an hour and apart from that brief moment where his voice offered the verbal equivalent of a caress, why should she assume anything might happen between them? Yet over breakfast the following morning after she booked, he was reading a long article in the newspaper on the difference between cognitive behavioural therapy and psychoanalysis. In the former the therapist attended chiefly to the thoughts we are aware of and can change; psychoanalysis was more concerned with the interpretive based on the masses of information we are constantly processing but cannot easily understand. Often we have not only to realise the nature of our behaviour, but also interpret it, or allow others to interpret it for us. The writer gave as an example an unfaithful husband who would suddenly fill the dishwasher in a much neater way than he would previously. The wife and the therapist successfully interpreted this as the husband's guilt manifesting itself in a simple, caring and tidy gesture. The husband then admitted to the affair. Psychoanalysis was useful partly because it didn't assume thoughts were close to hand but frequently disclosed in other behavioural patterns that had to be understood rather as we might try to make sense of a complex film or a complex book. He remembered reading somewhere Jung saying that the role of psychoanalysis was no longer to cure, and he supposed it must be to interpret.
What did such thinking have to do with Andrew's thoughts about Odette? Of course, he wondered if she had decided to book a day in advance so that she could see him, but wouldn't have wanted either to impose (by suggesting she stay at his the night before he was to leave) nor hint at the sexually forward. Should he take her suggestion of the hostel as a rejection, as he thought himself into her situation and knew that he would have done exactly the same? Unfortunately, he would have done exactly the same whether he was interested or whether he wasn't. That was one of the problems with interpreting behaviour: the very same action can indicate completely opposing intentions. Yet this was also what he had always found fascinating about human encounters, and why he disagreed with a behaviourist in the article who seemed to suggest that we should understand human behaviour as we would understand that of animals, by looking at their external characteristics. He thought again of the rumour and the physiognomic, observing people's features and wondering where they came from, and finding out about the specifics of their lives. Perhaps he was attracted to Odette because she was a mystery to herself when she looked in the mirror, and a mystery to him as he wanted to know more about her.
She emailed him the night before she arrived, saying that she would book into the hostel, drop off her rucksack and meet him if he were free in the early afternoon. She was sitting in a cafe on Cockburn street. It was late September, still warm enough to be sitting outside and as he approached she was rolling a cigarette. He didn't know she smoked, he said, by way of an introduction. She looked up, smiled, and hugged him as though they had spoken for rather more than forty minutes. She admitted she smoked only when she was stressed, and this was she supposed a stressful moment. Fifteen minutes later they were sitting there holding hands across the table, smiling like they were sharing secrets other than the presence of each other's absence. The rest of the day they wandered around the city and that evening at a restaurant, and as he insisted on picking up the bill, and as she insisted on paying since he was giving her his flat for the next week, and as they decided to pay half each, so it seemed silly for her to go and yet this is what she did. She said she would travel around at the weekend and be back in Edinburgh for his return. They could be together then, she suggested. He walked her back to the hostel and they kissed at length outside it. Let us wait, she said.
Andrew enjoyed his week in Seville, and each day sent and received emails from Odette. She would often say little but with each email sent a dozen photos, often showing parts of the city that he didn't know. There was a tiny park near the castle, a walk behind Nicholson Street going in the direction of Arthur's Seat, several Mews flat closes that he had never wandered into. In return, he would take photos on his phone and send them to her, but knew that while Seville was a pretty town, with the Moorish centre and the mock-Moorish early twentieth century Parque de Maria Luisa, it didn't have what Odette called, in an email, the haunting drama of Edinburgh. As he looked at the photos she had furnished an obvious remark with a visual astuteness that suggested the adjective was consistent with the place she found. He noticed most of the shots he took of Seville were at eye level, reflecting the city's flatness. Most of her photographs were low-angle, as though every shot she took somehow indicated the castle and the volcano that dominated the city. He thought a lot during that week about that word haunting, and how a word that will find itself on any tourist brochure can be given a new meaning by a slight shift in perspective. He had always admired writers who can use a verb or adjective in an unusual and surprising way, but he also needed to feel that not just the language but the thought behind it was renewed too. The most important aspect is the renewal of thought, so even an apparent stale use of language can sometimes generate this freshness, and this is what he found in Odette's remark. It is the manner in which someone manages to make language real; how to put into its use a feeling that has been removed from it. In brochures, we sense they are written by a person saying in their head dum di dee dum di da, and writing that Edinburgh is a stunning city of rolling hills and homely pubs, fine medieval architecture and elegant Georgian buildings. Yet if the thought contains another feeling instead of boredom, the language can be similar but distinct, belonging to an individual consciousness. In one email Odette wrote that Edinburgh hills were rolling all around her, that the pubs were like secrets, and that she loved the transparency between the New Town and the furtive qualities of the Old Town. Even her strange construction, of hills rolling all around her, seemed to reflect her thinking.
His own emails didn't have much to say about Seville. He described the smell of orange blossoms, the incense he would get a whiff of passing churches, and the stench of horse dung from the horse and carriages in the city centre. But mainly he would instead try and tell her what Edinburgh meant to him. It was a city he felt sheltered in, he said, believing perhaps that somehow its history had passed and left a place of immense tranquillity. It had been important enough to have been a base in the north of Great Britain in Medieval times and thus benefited from the building of the old town and the castle, while significant enough during the empire to have gained a New Town and influx of wealth it still seemed to be living off. Yet he felt it was no longer a city of much importance, and this is what gave it a pace that meant a person could find the rhythm of their soul in it. He could not do that in Paris, London or New York, and as he passed through Seville he couldn't but notice historical similarities with his hometown. Here was a city whose past was glorious but whose present status was quite unimportant. Madrid and Barcelona were of far more significance, and he presumed many people stayed because they liked the lifestyle the place offered them in beautiful surroundings that had long since been paid for. He thought again of absences, of a city that had a Moorish influence but few Arabs, of a base for an immense empire but now was not even a capital city.
As Odette sent him photos so he imagined his own absence in the city. He had, of course, travelled away on numerous occasions, had lent his flat to others, but while he might sometimes have missed Edinburgh, he never felt absent to it. He would never imagine himself in it while not being there. As he thought about this drinking a coffee under an orange tree in a side street close to the palace, he thought that this notion wasn't some impossible paradox, but an occasional realisation, and recalled the most extreme example of it, one probably common to many. About five years earlier his girlfriend of six years had left him and immediately started seeing someone else. A few months before the break-up she had moved to Glasgow for a job, and they would visit each other every weekend. He knew the city well enough but became very familiar with it during that period, and after she had told him it was over and that she had met another man, he would think of his absence as the other man's presence. Some might have called this jealousy, and perhaps it was. Yet it seemed to him more than this; that he had been replaced, and felt that there she was only a week or two after breaking up with him doing many things they had recently been doing. She would have been walking around Kelvingrove Park hand in hand; she would have been bringing in a breakfast tray after they had made love; gone to the cinema together, whispering remarks in each other's ear. He was still present in Glasgow in his absence, and it was as though there was a revenant version of himself looking on at this new relationship, just as there was a present him in Edinburgh alone. He felt properly beside himself, and yet here he was somehow feeling it again five years later over this woman whom he hardly knew.
That day when he said he was in the south of France looking for his roots as well as reading a paper, it was not really a lie, but it was an exaggeration. Whenever he would travel he thought he was looking for some hint of a familial resemblance in certain faces, and wondered if he might instinctively feel at home in another city, suggesting that the place had been home for those he had descended from. But while the thought was often on his mind, his actions did nothing to try and confirm his genetic heritage. Yet travel for him always had a dimension of this loss he was hoping to discover. What he had never done, he realised, was travel with the idea of finding someone. He had met and slept with one or two women while at conferences, and when he was younger had a week long affair with someone when he was in Oaxaca, but in each instance, they were people moving in opposite directions whose paths crossed and a bed was shared. Yet with Odette, he believed that their paths were crisscrossing, and would do so for some time to come.
The paper he read while in Seville was a variation of the one he had presented in the southern French city: the question of what drew Celtic writers, be it Joyce or Beckett, White or Trocchi, to another country, another climate, another life. This time there were a hundred people in a small lecture hall that thus looked packed and, afterwards, people asked questions enthusiastically. One concerned the desire to seek an escape that needn't at all be necessary. Now, the questioner said, we are expected to move anywhere in the world for a job, and here we had writers who in some way didn't really have a job and would live in a country out of desire rather than necessity. The questioner was probably in his mid-twenties, probably working on a PhD, and perhaps thinking that he would soon have to leave the south of Spain to live where: in an English university city, in an American college town? Andrew mentioned that Beckett had expected to teach languages at Trinity College Dublin. He first stayed in Paris while a Reader at Ecole Normale Superieure. He returned to Dublin and taught for four terms and then resigned, travelling to France, Germany and Italy, before settling in France. Andrew said that even Beckett, even then, had hinted at the conformity many of us feel obliged to live by. The young man asking the question looked happy with the answer, like someone who had been given advice rather than a factual reply, and perhaps someone saw the personal nature in the asking, and followed by asking one that could be seen as requiring a personal response from Andrew himself. He asked if by concentrating on writers from Scotland, and also Ireland, he was having the best of both worlds. He could talk about the possibility of escape while remaining at home, practising brief forays by giving talks elsewhere. The question was asked, like all the other questions, in fluent Spanish and translated into English for Andrew. But he heard in the woman's accent more than a trace of Englishness, and couldn't help but ask if she had also found herself in a similar situation. For the next twenty-five minutes, the talk became increasingly informal but not at all casually anecdotal. It was as though each person contributing had an urgent question to ask, and at one point, several people were asking questions of each other. If the discussion had been an academic failure, he believed it had been a personal success. It wasn't the first time that he had given a paper and the talk had focused on the choices we have to make in our own lives, and in such situations, Andrew tried to link the question where possible to the writers' lives without refusing the importance of the lives of those asking questions. After all, he wasn't only talking about the writers' work; he was also interested in their biographies as existential enquiry: as a way of understanding choices that we have to make in living a full, perhaps creative existence.
When he got back to his hotel room he had the need to talk to Odette, and sent her a text asking if she would be free to talk. She replied straight away and said she would be available in about an hour. She was passing Holy Corner at the top of Bruntsfield, would get some provisions at a wholefood shop on the way, and call him as soon as she was in the flat. While waiting for her call he mused over a remark that had come up in the discussion that afternoon. Someone had asked what he made of some early Beckett love poems that people had described as examples of exile from self; that love is somehow an exile from ourselves in the life of another. Sometimes this would be literal (we move to another country for our beloved), but often it is a feeling of being beside oneself. He wanted to answer the question very personally, to talk about how he felt when that past girlfriend had left and started seeing someone else so soon afterwards, but instead he admitted that it was an area he hadn't devoted much time to, but it was an interesting notion that he suspected he would be attending to in the future. It was probably the weakest answer he had given, and it was partly because, oddly, he hadn't given it very much time and attention. Yet he was fascinated by the question and frustrated that while he believed he could have answered it fully, personally, he couldn't do it professionally. To answer it at all would have left him too exposed. He had thanked the person, saying it was a great line of enquiry.
It was an odd experience speaking to Odette and seeing in the background his books and his bed. Here was this stranger with whom he nevertheless felt intimacy, with whom he had been promised intimacy, in another part of the world that happened to be his, and what was separating them was his trip elsewhere. She said she was enjoying the flat; that it was a cosy place to come back to after walking around the city all day. He said it was small for Edinburgh; she said it was quite big for France. Her own place was a studio with the kitchen part of the living room/bedroom. The idea of having three rooms seemed to her a luxury, and yet she felt the compactness that reminded her of home. It didn't carry an echo: a bigger apartment and she might have felt lonely. It was an odd sort of homesickness he felt at that moment, a combination of missing someone and missing his flat. Of course, the missing somebody could have been because they were in different cities in a long distance relationship; but here was Odette, whom he had merely kissed, living in his. It was as though she had moved in before they had even started seeing each other and, thinking of that exhausted and all too contemporary phrase commitment-phobe, he wondered if the notion that a woman moving into your flat before you have slept together might be as good a countenancing of it as any.
He didn't quite express this to her as they talked; though he couldn't pretend he felt extremely at ease with her presence in his flat in his absence and wondered how he would feel being there at the same time. Would he be equally comfortable? He also mused to himself over the well being he felt about this, in contrast to the ill-being over the presence of his absence when his ex-girlfriend had left him for someone else. He then told her an anecdote about a couple he knew, and how they had met. It was Rachel who had told him the story, with Paul grinning as he sat with his head in her lap on the sofa in the flat they were sharing not far from his. Paul and Rachel were both on a post-graduate programme in Edinburgh and after a few months he had been made homeless after falling out with his girlfriend. Around the same time someone on the programme in the flat she was in had dropped out, and so a room became available and Paul took it. He had been with his girlfriend since he was eighteen, and enjoyed the freedom of being single again as he would every other weekend or so take someone back to the flat and have rather loud and enthusiastic sex with whoever it happened to be. It always seemed to be a different woman, Rachel noticed, and would sometimes find herself making small talk with her over breakfast while Paul was still asleep after all the big talk he had been offering the night before. During the same period, Rachel was having a protracted break-up with her boyfriend (who was back in Bournemouth, and wanted her to finish her masters, get a job, marry him and have children): he didn't want to let her go. She recalled one evening that as she started to scream at her ex, so she heard in the room next door Paul's one night stand letting out an equally loud scream and that was that. A moment of realisation in another person's orgasm. If the only screams she was capable of after five years with a man was yelling at him down the phone line, then it was definitely over.
The next day she apologised to Paul and the other two flatmates, saying she might have been a bit loud on the phone the previous night, but she didn't think it would happen again. She had broken up for sure with her boyfriend. What also happened was that this was the last time Paul seemed to take a women back to the flat, and over the next few months they would go to the cinema together, cook-up meals and sometimes talk late into the night. For a young man who seemed pretty forward when it came to seducing women, he was remarkably slow in seducing her. And yet had he done so in those first few months she would probably have laughed at him; she needed time to work through her last relationship and would have felt like the easiest of his conquests: heck; he wouldn't even have needed to leave the apartment. The pass, such as it was, indeed came from her. The course had come to an end, they had just handed in their Master's thesis, and they were all out celebrating when he asked what she was going to do now. They had to vacate the flat in a fortnight. She said she would go back to Bournemouth, stay with her parents for a while and figure out what she would do from there. She asked what he was going to do. He would remain in the city, more or less: he would go and stay with his parents in Currie for a while. He said he would miss her; and she concurred, kissing him softly on the lips. And that was it, he said. She didn't move back south; he didn't move back in with their parents. They both found part-time jobs within a week, and before the influx of undergraduates returned. It was the flat in which Andrew was listening to the story a couple of years later, and there he was telling it to Odette years after that. She asked Andrew whether Rachel didn't feel insecure given how many lovers she had heard him having sex with in the past. He didn't know, but he didn't think so. Perhaps it reassured her that he was competent in bed and that it was important that he wanted to please a woman. What Rachel did say was that she thought many people should try living together before sleeping together; that she had read someone say that it was a bit like an arranged marriage that you arrange for yourself.
Andrew didn't say much more to Odette about the story but later thought a bit about it himself while thinking about her. He thought how the relationship he had described had been built out of presences not absences: about other lovers Rachel would hear in the room next door, and how they built an affair out of a friendship first. There was very little imaginary dimension to their encounter; little sense of imagining the other's absence. Indeed, it was only when they both realised the possibility of absence that the relationship started at all. He couldn't imagine forming a relationship on such a basis, and wondered whether the situation with Odette was his ideal: meeting a stranger in a foreign country and developing feelings on the basis of an immediate felt absence. It gave so much more opportunity for the thoughts surely necessary for a love affair to grow in the minds of each of the participants. He was pleased that his friends were together, but did not envy the way in which they became a couple. He was, he supposed more romantic, but that seemed too facile a response to this yearning he couldn't quite have named until it had been met.
They arranged to meet on his return in a cafe between his flat near the Meadows and the station. She wanted to meet him at the airport, but he insisted it wasn't necessary, and so they met as if familiar strangers in a cafe with a view of the castle and coffee she found so bitterly stewed that she screwed her nose up as if in irritation with something he said. It was only the coffee she insisted, and he explained why he never drank it, saying he loved the smell, didn't mind the taste and very much disliked the after-taste. Tea he believed was a much more consistent pleasure: it didn't smell of much, tasted pleasurable and the after taste was negligible. She asked if that meant he wouldn't properly kiss her, and he replied he didn't want to be too presumptuous. When they had met ten minutes earlier, they had hugged for a long time, but somehow a kiss didn't feel appropriate; that the re-accquiantance first had to take account of the other's mass. He said he would love to kiss her but not if he was going to be met with a similar response to the coffee. She smiled and said they could try, and he perhaps for the first time in his life felt oblivious to people around him in a public place and, had he been looking on, he would have done so with an amused disapproval, believing there was always something exhibitionist about those who insisted on so flagrant a public display of affection. And there he was, happening to be one of them, unable to be the onlooker to his own place in the world he had so often been. When they got back to the flat the first thing they did was have sex, and the second was make some lunch. There was more awkwardness to the lunch than to the sex, as Odette moved around the kitchen with a familiarity she seemed to wish to keep in check, aware that it was another person's space yet one her muscle memory had already accommodated as its own. Yet he was touched by this: it seemed the opposite to those who immediately appropriate a space that doesn't belong to them which he had always seen as a sign of arrogance. There she was subduing that response.
Later that evening lying in bed, their feet entangled within each other's, the blinds up and the curtains un-closed, with the moon streaming in, they could see each other's faces clearly without any artificial light, and she said that she hoped he didn't think she was too familiar in his flat. She added that she felt very familiar with Edinburgh too, as though she had been here in some cellular past, he joked, a deja vu of the DNA, perhaps. He said that he sensed an aspect of it too in Montpellier. He had wandered around the city not at all knowing where he was going, but neither remotely feeling like the city was unfamiliar to him either. They both agreed that the notion of familiarity contains within it two very different conditions. There are places we go to that we are familiar with, we pass through its streets knowing exactly where we are going because we have been to the city four of five times before. Then there are other places that are familiar to us that we cannot claim to know, the places having nothing to do with our concrete experiences. In such cities we never seem to get lost even if we don't know where we are going, and this is how he felt about Montpellier. While he didn't believe in reincarnation, he did wonder if there was some trace of genetic memory that reacquaints us with places our parents or grandparents knew. If he felt it about Montpellier; she said she felt it about Edinburgh. She recalled arguing with a friend about various conspiracy theories the person believed in, and when the person started to get angry with her when Odette didn't agree that 9/11 was an inside job or that the moon landing was faked, Odette said to her that her problem wasn't that she thought there was something amiss about these two events, but that the friend seemed so sure of what exactly did happen. There wasn't enough evidence to make her claims so assertively, and Odette thought the friend was somehow betraying the uncertainty, the doubt, for the unsubstantiated. She had always believed this a little too close to madness. It is a big difference saying one always felt a bit perturbed by the inconsistencies of 9/11 as an opening gambit, and saying that the US government blew up its own Trade Centres. Perhaps they did, but for Odette that would need a lot more evidence than the friend could come up with. What she could agree on was the event was inexplicable, but that was the very point. Neither the conventional explanation of events nor the conspiratorial ones could remove from her mind the sense of the uncanniness.
Was Odette and Andrew's meeting uncanny, Andrew would sometimes think over the next few months? After she returned to France they spoke two or three times. He visited her again, and she visited him, and it would have been six months after they first met that she moved into the Edinburgh flat she first came to know in his absence. During these months before they started living together he would think a great deal about the nature of their meeting, and would wonder sometimes not whether they had known each other in a past life, but whether there might have been some point in time when their relatives had met and become acquainted, producing the possibility of their own encounter. He wondered whether it might be best to look for our roots not in archives and genealogy, but in coincidences, in places and people that yield a feeling that we cannot quite explain. We feel it in a sense of absence that we believe we cannot easily understand yet that we can emotionally or spatially overcome. A person becomes a lover; a place becomes our home, he reckoned, as he thought it possible that just as Odette had come to live with him in Edinburgh, he could easily have gone to Montpellier to live with her. They would both somehow have been returning home and not just leaving it.
© Tony McKibbin