I recall somebody famously saying that we don't travel for the pleasure of travelling: that we might be dumb but not that dumb. So what do we travel for? Perhaps to understand something of the complexity of the world, but, ideally, a complexity that isn't already given in the monuments, the battlefields and the great castles, but in the accidental realization that we are actively part of that complex world.
My parents had lived in London for many years before recently moving up to Inverness, but they were both actually from the North of Scotland, from the Outer Hebrides to be precise, and so as children we never took any holidays abroad - each summer we would get the overnight train to Inverness, and the next morning a bus up to Ullapool and the ferry over to Stornoway. It would take probably around fifteen hours to get there, and so though we never left the country, it certainly felt as if we were travelling to another one, and it was only really a cutting comment from a fellow student in my first year at Stirling University when I was nineteen that made me feel un-travelled, and made me think I should do something about it. This comment was offered by a girl I'd slept with one night, and who I hadn't got in touch with again. I didn't fail to do so out of callous one-night stand-ship, but rather out of emotional ineptitude: I had been drunk, and felt a bit uneasy about trying to communicate soberly with someone whom I barely knew but whose body I had been inside. As I saw Sandra sitting in the university cafe one afternoon a couple of months later, and she asked if I would join her, I sat down, had a cup of tea and we talked about what we planned to do with our summer holidays. When I said I might go up to my family's house in Lewis, she wondered if I shouldn't do something more adventurous with my summer; and added that surely going to the outer Hebrides was a holiday in the sticks. It didn't count as travel. She promptly apologised for the superior and insulting tone of the statement, saying maybe she was no different. Her parents happened to have a holiday home in the South of France, and so just as I would go from London to Lewis, she and her family would go from Glasgow to Avignon. We talked for a couple of hours that afternoon, and arranged to eat in the kitchen at my Halls of Residence, and from that night on we started seeing each other regularly.
And so it was a couple of months later when we arranged our summer holidays. She would spend two weeks with me on the island in August, and I would visit her for a couple of weeks at her parents' holiday home in July. We hadn't arranged to travel to the South together, for she would be spending the end of June and all of July there, sometimes with her parents, and sometimes with her brother and sister-in-law. But when I would come over, she said, we would have the place mostly to ourselves. I'd never flown before, and was relieved they had recently finished building the channel tunnel so that I could get a train all the way from Inverness to the South of France.
I got the train to London in the morning, and stayed the night at a friend's place, someone who lived quite near King's Cross. He insisted we go out for the evening, and so we went for a few beers at a pub next to the tube station at Camden, where we met a group of language exchange students from France. Most of them trickled back to their nearby accommodation, but three of them, a couple and a friend of theirs, joined us when we suggested we should get some food at a late night eatery my friend knew of. As we sat eating falafels underneath the fluorescent lighting, I noticed that the friend, whose name was Marianne, had a small mole in almost exactly the same place as Sandra: just below the bottom lip on the right hand side. I recalled a few weeks before, at the end of the term, Sandra had asked me what I loved most about her and I said it must be that little mole just below her mouth. At first she had looked perturbed, saying that she would prefer I loved her for an aspect of perfection rather than a flaw, but I convinced her that it was a recognizable characteristic, the element of her that made her uniquely herself. Yet here I was sitting in a Camden falafel bar talking to someone who had almost exactly the same mole, and whom I couldn't help but notice was much more beautiful than Sandra. As I thought about seeing Sandra in a couple of days' time a feeling of deflation over took me. I would sometimes feel that I had often tried to make the mole the area of tenderness on to which I could project, seeing too often in Sandra an over-sensitivity that could turn caustic and leave the mole the one aspect that could still touch me. But here was somebody with whom I'd been talking to earlier in the evening, and with whom I shared a surprising affinity: Marianne had travelled a great deal and never quite trusted it as a means with which to comprehend the world. She said that reading meant far more to her, and we started discussing the writers who were important to us.
I had often noticed in the communal kitchen that I shared with nineteen other people at university that many conversations would revolve around travel experiences, and I may have been the only student who hadn't gone away somewhere interesting in the summer before starting the degree. I rarely felt that these stories revealed very much about the people who offered them, though I was hardly able to contradict their potential significance either. Where had I been? Yet perhaps I didn't need to go anywhere: I think I knew that when they exchanged travel stories this was a way of making small talk look larger than it was. It was small talk given an air of experience. In terms of meaning they could just as easily have been talking about the weather, a caf they had been to, or a local monument they had seen. Indeed, that is basically what they were talking about. Except the weather was India's, the caf was in Paris, and the monument in Mexico. They were consumed experiences. It was as if they had travelled to travel; that they were that 'dumb'.
But occasionally I would talk to someone about a book they'd read, and I remember one student I'd met at a party in our halls of residence who said that he'd gone to Morocco because he'd read writers like Paul Bowles, had shortly before seen a film adaptation of his work, and wanted to experience the surprise of a culture. He said despite taking a three day trip into the desert with a guide, he hadn't had the experience he was hoping for, and yet something else happened that made him aware of how far a world could be from his own. It was after he'd got back to Marrakesh from the desert, and he had just got on a bus for the coastal fortress town of Essaouira. As he was sitting waiting for the bus to leave, a young man of about thirty got on with a jacket over his shoulders. He let the jacket slip off and land on the bus floor, and showed, wearing a short sleeved shirt with the sleeves folded up to the top of the shoulder, two apparently fresh stumps, like the joints of a cooked chicken freshly divided up. A number of people put money into his shirt pocket. The person telling me the story couldn't remember how the man picked his jacket up again; he was still thinking of the stumps. Perhaps by his teeth; perhaps somebody helped him. As he told me this he said he couldn't have hoped for such an impression, and who would ask for it, but that was the image that made him British: British in his astonished attempt to make sense of these gaping wounds. He said he felt for him that was what certain writers, writing about other places, could do. They could make us feel this sense of astonishment without us ever having been to the place they've described. Most people he reckoned travelled to avoid this experience, and why shouldn't they? He left it as a moot question, and I wondered whether this astonishment needs to be a negative revelation or whether it could come from a positive one, and whether it needed to be a revelation at all, or maybe something almost astonishingly mundane.
That night in London, as we all walked back to my friend's place where we were going to have a cup of tea (the couple and their friend Marianne lived slightly further away but in the same direction as my friend), Marianne and I walked behind the others and it was then that I told her the story I'd been told, and added what I had been thinking about after I'd been told the story.
The next morning I left at nine after sleeping with Marianne in my arms as we lay on the friend's sitting room couch. We'd just talked till we fell asleep, and our bodies seemed to have melted into each other's as the night turned into dawn. Before going out the door I kissed her lightly on the forehead and left my parents' phone number and address with her as she roused herself to say goodbye. The only address I had for her was very general: she lived in Montpellier. She was going home for the summer but would be back in London in September, and I had invited her up to Inverness and she had invited me to stay at her flat in London. When she had asked me where I was going, I hadn't said the south of France; which wasn't a lie as I offered her a partial truth - that I was going to Paris.
On the Eurostar, I felt a strong sense of well-being as I thought about the naturalness of the previous evening, and was relieved that nothing had happened between us sexually. Yet I believed this feeling had little to do with being faithful to Sandra; it was more that I'd been faithful to the situation of the previous night. Marianne and I had developed a fine line intimacy that probably wouldn't have been helped by the sexual, and I suppose I also wondered whether that was what had 'ruined' the assignation with Sandra that night when we had first slept together. But at the same time I thought that with Sandra sex was almost inevitable. That hers was such a practical personality, so given to cause and effect, that why else would she have a man in her room?
As I got on the TGV after crossing from Gare de Nord to Gare de Lyon, I started having slightly resentful feelings towards Sandra, and a burgeoning irritation towards myself that I hadn't taken Marianne's French address and phone number even though she would be in France in a few days' time. I tried to shrug it off, and said to myself that since I'd given her my number then it was really a question of being patient. If she was interested she would phone me when she would be back in Britain. I wasn't convinced, though, and maybe it was because I couldn't convince myself that, when I arrived in Avignon, and was met by a huge hug from Sandra, I responded with a cruel lie. I said that I could only stay for ten days and not two weeks. (I would spend the remaining days in Montpellier I had decided.)She looked mildly disappointed, especially since her parents would also be in the flat for the first three days, but insisted that ten days was time enough, and that she would show me round the region, and I would see why travelling happened to be one of the great pleasures in life. As I looked at her mole, I felt once again tenderness towards her, but I'm not so sure it wasn't also an equal if not greater tenderness for Marianne.
Sandra's parents owned a flat in the town centre. Though many people would rent their apartments out for July because of the famous theatre festival that ran throughout the month, with accommodation inevitably scarce, her parents chose not to. This was a sign of their wealth, perhaps, a sign of their interest in the arts, or a sign that they wanted to keep the place to themselves and were quite territorial. All these possibilities offered themselves to me as Sandra and I walked through the town centre, along the main street, Rue le Republique. We turned off near the bottom and along by Rue St Agricol, before walking along Rue Joseph Vernet, where the flat was situated. It was as we were walking back to the flat that I was reminded of what Sandra had said about her parents not renting their apartment, and I felt trepidation as I wondered whether they would be so territorial that my own visit would seem like an intrusion. As if reading my thoughts Sandra insisted her parents were going to stay on for no longer than the weekend - they wanted to catch a few more plays - and then they would be going back to Glasgow and leaving the flat to us. I knew her parents were both teachers; that her father taught English and her mother French, but I realised that I had asked her so little about her family. I knew she was an only child and that was it. What surprised me most on meeting them was not just that they were very warm people, and parents who immediately treated me less like the son-in-law to be, with all the wariness that may entail, but more as the son they had never had. But what I noticed also was that Marianne seemed to me like the daughter they had never had: she seemed much more consistent with their openness and well-being than Sandra who I would often find suspicious, and closed. As the four of us sat eating lunch next to the window which faced out onto the street, I felt once again a feeling of betrayal: I wished it were Marianne and not Sandra sitting there with me and her parents. Maybe it was the mole on her mother's cheek that made so awful a thought present to my mind, but that would still pass for too easy self-justification. Here I was sitting with the wonderful parents of someone with whom I wasn't remotely in love: a feeling of bad faith overcoming me, though I'm not sure how responsible I could claim to be for this feeling. After all, I didn't expect to meet someone else in London, and hardly expected to find Sandra's parents as appealing as they were. I almost wished that they weren't going back to Glasgow: that without them, the largish two bedroomed flat might seem cavernously empty as I spent the next ten days hiding my thoughts and my non-feelings from Sandra.
Yet the ten days Sandra and I were together went surprisingly well. We saw several plays, usually of physical theatre so that the language wasn't much of a barrier, would often take an afternoon mint tea in a caf on a narrow street next to the canal, and we ate out several times at a wonderful whole-food restaurant we found called Terre de saveur. We also went on day trips to Aix, Arles and Nimes. When we made love in the evening it was with a sense of accomplishment, as if sex were a well-earned excitation before the calm of sleep. It seemed as natural in such moments to have sex with Sandra as it had seemed to lie in the arms without making love to Marianne only days before, and yet I still believed part of my well-being resided in that small possibility that I would see Marianne in a few days time in Montpellier. One morning as Sandra and I were lying in bed, waiting for the coffee to brew, she asked if I would like to extend my stay. It was the one moment of resistance that I offered during the whole time we were together, and I said that I should get back, that I would spend several days with my friend in London. I'm not sure whether it was the quiet insistence that swayed her, or whether she noticed a mild flinch away from her in my body language. But we didn't talk about the possibility again, and she didn't know that a couple of days later I allowed the possibility to pass through my mind that I wouldn't go to Montpellier, that I would stay and have three or four more wonderful days with Sandra. It was the evening before the end of my stay where we had come back from a day trip to Arles, and it was about eight thirty in the evening, we had ordered a bottle of wine, and awaited our starters and looked at each other as if to say what a lovely day we'd had and what delightful evening we were having. Her eyes, which sometimes looked dulled and tired in Scotland, were fresh and bluer than I could recall them being, and though she didn't really tan as I did, her colour had gone from pale white to light rose. Wearing a green slip and an orange skirt she looked like what she was: a happy, healthy visitor to France from Britain. Wasn't this enough for me; did I really need to travel fifty or sixty miles west and see if there was another woman whom I might coincidentally meet?
The answer to that was that yes I did, and so as I left the flat early in the morning, after insisting that Sandra lie in bed rather than see me off at the station. Before leaving, as I made her coffee, she said she didn't think she would go to the Hebrides with me. She thought she would stay here in the South; it was such a beautiful spot - could Lewis compete? Perhaps it was her way of saying that we should split-up, and my half-hearted response was my way of keeping things in limbo, but as I walked to the station with a mixture of well-being at the freedom I had created for myself, and unease at the lie I had told Sandra, I hoped that maybe it was over. Certainly the sense of well-being became stronger as I managed to convince myself that Sandra hadn't always been so wonderful (and who knows if she would return to her truculent self back at university) and I also wondered whether if I hadn't created this little pocket of freedom for myself - and thought frequently about looking for Marianne in Montpellier whilst being with Sandra - whether Sandra and I would have got on so well. After all, Sandra had a habit of being affectionate towards me when I really did not want it, and it was in those moments that I would most think of and yearn for Marianne.
As I sat on the train going to Montpellier, though, the well-being faded and the anxiety increased. How could I do this to Sandra, I wondered? We had numerous meaningful moments in Avignon, and on our day trips, and it was perhaps especially cruel to conjure up the negative occasions that weren't even Sandra's fault, when there were far more positive ones to remember. I found myself feeling horrible feelings in the moments when I recalled the best of memories - a paradox for which perhaps I deserved to pay dear.
I arrived in Montpellier before nine o'clock, managed to book a dorm bed in a hostel called Auberge de Jeunesse, and started to wander around this small city. Like, it seemed, many French towns and small cities, the streets were a labyrinth, and I would feel I possessed my bearings only quickly to lose them again. Even in the much smaller town of Arles I had this problem, and it was only because Sandra knew her way around that I believed I had known where I was going. I wondered whether this was also the case more generally, as I sat in a caf drinking some mint tea late in the afternoon, with no sign of Marianne, and no sense of direction on my part. I was beginning to feel genuinely and completely disoriented. Unable to find my way around the city, unlikely to find the person whom I was looking for, and finally uncomfortably unwilling to return to recent and lovely memories of my time with Sandra, I felt as if I were suffering some ever so slight, ever so indistinct loss of perspective. The thirty six degree heat probably exacerbated it.
But it was with this feeling sitting inside me that I saw walking past me what could only have been Marianne. All those feelings became doubly disoriented but pleasantly so, and I couldn't stop myself from calling out her name. As she turned round a couple of feet from me, and as I stood up and moved towards her, I looked to see that most distinguishing feature, her beauty spot, and noticed it was there, in exactly the same place a Sandra's. She seemed to take a moment longer to recognize me, and it was just then that it occurred to me that we had never actually seen each other in day light. The look of puzzlement was quickly replaced by surprise, which she promptly replaced with what looked like a genuine sense of joy. We hugged, and she asked what brought me here: was I alone, was I staying for long? I didn't say I was here simply to see her, and this was partly out of shyness, I supposed, but also to say so would have felt like betraying Sandra publicly. Whatever doubts and schemes, I possessed, they were private affairs, and I somehow really believed I would be betraying Sandra to say to Marianne I had come to Montpellier simply to see her.
Over the next couple of days Marianne and I wandered round Montpellier much as Sandra and I had wandered around Avignon. Perhaps I should have felt guilty, hypocritical, yet I couldn't but feel that spending a couple of days with Marianne was the most purposeful way I could use the remainder of the holiday. Was I possibly in love with both Sandra and Marianne? I remember reading somewhere that loving one person is less to offer another a gift than to risk poisoning them with projections they can't possibly live up to. Had I stayed with Sandra in Avignon I may have expected too much from her, and maybe my partial resentment towards her in Glasgow didn't only lie in my belief that she was less attractive, less engaging and more severe back home, but also that I had projected onto her a personality that I wanted her to have, but she only partly possessed; and that Marianne allowed for that projection to become diluted and the reality to become acceptable.
But of course could I practice this co-existent life back in Britain, with Marianne studying in London and Sandra living in Stirling? As I thought about the relatively short distance between Avignon and Montpellier, and the much greater distance between London and Stirling, and that I believed my well-being may reside in the geographical gap between two places, and the psychological gap between the two women I wanted in my life, I though that perhaps it wasn't really so dumb to travel, if the circumstances demanded it. As I sat with Marianne in what I presumed was the one vegetarian restaurant in the city, and shared a healthy meal with her, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe Marianne required no projection on my part and I told her exactly what I was doing in this city, and how badly I had treated somebody else, if only, over the last two weeks, by treating them so well.
I thought if Marianne could accept my behaviour for what it was - and even I didn't quite know what it was - then perhaps no projection would be required. Sure I would have to spend a lot of my time travelling from one city to another if we were to see each other regularly, but as I waited for her answer I wondered if what I had just offered to her was dumb, but not that dumb. Ethically suspect, I suppose, but not dumb. I looked again at her mole and it filled me with an affection I could never quite feel for Sandra. It was indeed a beauty spot, though a beauty I might not exactly have deserved. But it was for Marianne, as I told her the manner in which I had treated another young woman, to decide that.
© Tony McKibbin