When meeting him, he told me he would spend his pension on young women. It was after a friend's photography exhibition; he had been her tutor several years earlier, and she invited him along not just to the exhibition but to the pub also. He might have seemed an anomalous presence amongst the rest of us in our late twenties or early thirties, but he appeared not at all perturbed by an age gap that had left others reluctant to join us. When May asked her parents to come along to the pub after the show they resisted, saying they would leave the young to enjoy themselves. Another professor, also invited, said his old bones would look out of place in a young person's bar.
It was true the pub we ended up in was youthful and Roger by far the oldest there, but as I fell in with him as we walked from the gallery on Cockburn Street, along the Royal Mile, through the Grassmarket, and over to Tollcross, he showed no signs of tiredness. It was a late September evening, the mild breeze surprisingly warm, and several of the others had caught an available cab they saw passing on the street. They offered Roger a chance to get in with them. This generous gesture on their part could have seemed like condescension to Roger. He insisted he would prefer to walk. He was engaged in conversation with this young man he said, looking at me as he acknowledged his age but wasn't inclined to surrender to its expectations.
I was glad he refused the ride; when it was offered he was telling me about the photographs that most fascinated him. He said what he dwelled on were the ones that could have been otherwise, photographs that caught the moment between life and death. He mentioned the Hindenburg catching fire, the burning monk, the Vietcong boy, the girl running along the street covered in napalm. Most photographs don't have that type of tension they capture a moment but it isn't so obviously a defining one. It is a portrait of a star, a monumental landscape, an architectural image or perhaps a worker in a dangerous and arduous job. They may be at a coalface underground or working on a skyscraper as it is being built. He said I probably knew of a famous photograph where a dozen or so construction workers are sitting on a beam high above New York while working on the Empire State Building. It is a brilliant photograph, capturing the casual attitude to the workers while the viewer sees the precarity of their existence. The Empire State Building took only 13 months to build and of 3,400 workers, five lost their lives. But there is nothing in the photograph suggesting that loss; in the Hindenburg photograph there is.
I was surprised at how morbid the discussion had become, how quickly Roger had moved from discussing May's work to talking about some of the most harrowing photographs in history. But he then contextualised what he was saying by insisting what he liked about May's work was that the catastrophe was temporally extended rather than dramatically contracted. Just as he was about to explain, he was offered the lift as the taxi pulled over to the curb, and I wasn't sure if he said no because he wanted to prove that he was as fit and healthy as anyone else, or that he wanted to prove the point he was making. I suspect it was both. No sooner had the cab pulled away, he continued.
When we arrived at the pub ten minutes after everyone else, after he made that casual remark about spending his pension on young women, our presence was conspicuous as the others halted whatever they were discussing to herald the newcomers. I needn't flatter myself to think this had anything to do with my presence; there were numerous occasions where I would arrive at a party or a pub gathering and if I arrived alone I got myself a drink less because I was thirsty; more, I needed to busy myself with some activity as no one was in any great hurry to come over and talk to me. Some might see in my remark self-pity, and wonder what I had to complain about: I was at least invited to the pub and to parties. But I seek only to convey my neutral presence in situations, that even those invites were based on an appealing tepidity; as though I were in a film and they needed more extras to make the situation look authentic. Roger seemed in this sense a leading man, someone who even when we ordered at the bar so immediately got the barman's attention that he politely suggested there were a couple of people who had been waiting before him. Yet he wasn't physically striking and even in his youth he would probably have been inconspicuous in appearance; indeed, age might have given him a more interesting one. Though he would have always had the green-blue eyes and the white teeth, perhaps when he was young he didn't know how to use them expressively. Now he did, and when he returned to the table with the drinks, I noticed how people made space for him and merely accommodated me.
I sat next to May, the reason I was there, while Roger was given room at what quickly became the head of the table. People asked him what he made of the show and he said he was just talking to the young man over there (looking at me) while most of the others had hopped into a taxi. Roger said it might be a bit more awkward repeating it now with the artist in the room, and capable of contradicting his claims, but if May didn't mind, he would happily reiterate what he had earlier offered. May said she wasn't afraid of his appraisal since she knew it would come with insight: he could proceed.
And so he did, repeating in some ways what he had said but managing in the process to make it seem new enough for me to feel that he wasn't repeating himself. He liked May's work, and of course she was an ex-student and he had an obligation to like it. Imagine if he found himself sitting here discussing her work and telling everyone it was awful; how rude would that be? No, to be rude to an artist you do it in print, not in their company. This might seem an act of cowardice but it is instead a necessary process of distancing, a need to create a space between the personalities of those who disagree and to focus on the work itself.
But here he was in the pub, raucous and full, the smell of whisky in his glass and the scent of salted peanuts present as a couple of split bags lay open on the table. Here he was with his wonderful ex-student, and a few others who he had taught and whose work he would happily discuss when they were to exhibit, if he liked it enough, and review it if he didn't (people laughed). But seriously he said, as if settling into an after-dinner speech, yet with none of the complacency, he believed May captured a catastrophe that was not usually his interest. As she well knows, he said, he liked his tragedies brief; that many of the photographs that had most affected him had been sudden shifts where the person had died seconds after it has been taken, were dying the moment it was, or about to die. It is morbid, no doubt, he added, and had often of course thought about that, and on a few occasions written about it. But his claim had always been that the essence of the photograph resides in its capacity for activity and not tranquillity that centrally what separates it from painting is the immediacy of its recording and not the retrospective nature of its capturing. Painters he always believed have that advantage; that, like poetry, painting is best a recollection in tranquillity. Thus he had always preferred Don McCullin to Walker Evans or August Sander.
And yet he couldn't deny that May captured the catastrophe not in the making, not in its moment, but in how it had already been made. In her photographs, which were often of people in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, she invited us to wonder when the ruination took place. Was it sudden, and the person has been living with that moment ever since; perhaps a loved one died and they were on prescription drugs thereafter, was it accumulative; a drink habit that slowly ruined them, or a childhood they never quite knew how to work their way out from, abusive parents or bullying classmates? He said May's work never revealed this, never in her exhibitions would she allow any comment besides the photograph that would allow us to understand what the catastrophe might be. But there had been, he was sure, an overturning, to give the term its original Greek meaning. In much of the work he most admired, that overturning was clear: nobody is in any doubt that the person is in a crisis situation, one that often led to or showed their death.
May's work didn't do that. Yet it would have been terrible as painting. It would somehow have robbed the people who sat for her of their dignity, which he felt resided in the transparency of their pain and not the subjectivity of the painter. May looked more relieved that she wasn't a painter than pleased she was a photographer receiving great praise from her former professor, and I suspect this was one of the reasons why her work was so good. She could see in a situation, a remark, its potential opposite, the nothingness it contained. She would have known that when Roger praised her what was important was that remark about painting, knowing that the decision to give up painting when she was nineteen, and work exclusively in photography, would have been with an unconscious awareness that whatever her problematic happened to be, it couldn't be offered through paint on canvas. As I looked across, I saw that she wasn't absorbing the praise but weighing up the remark, wondering perhaps why it was exactly that painting couldn't show this catastrophe.
I suppose I can say now I knew what she was thinking because when we met a few days later, we talked about Roger's comment, and she said that if he meant generally that painting couldn't register the catastrophe he was wrong but if he meant it only about her work he was right. She thought of work by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Lucian Freud, and wondered if the collapse could only be registered in self-portraits, or perhaps abstractly as in Francis Bacon's work.
We were sitting in a cafe; not far from the art college where May taught one day a week and where Roger had been a full-time lecturer. We talked both about her work and Roger's life, even if she admitted he was both an open book and a closed chapter. I said to her that sounded impressively literary but finally vague. She added that he seemed both very approachable and very forthcoming but she always sensed that what he said he knew he was going to say that while he often managed to surprise others and was insightful, even revelatory sometimes she suspected he never surprised himself. What he had said about her work the other night wasn't spontaneous, she reckoned, he would have thought about it earlier in the evening, maybe days or weeks before, and then just so happened to offer it that night. It was the same with his personal life. She knew like others that he was frank about his womanising but it never quite seemed like a confession, more a story; just as his observations never quite felt like remarks, but part of a broader theory. In May's comments, I sensed resentment and concealment; that if Roger was given to formulating careful statements about art and life, May in this instance had offered me something that seemed full of subtext.
The cafe was cluttered and clattering, with all the tables full and the staff knocking around as they cleaned out the coffee filter holder. I asked her how she was enjoying the job: it was her first semester, she had been teaching for a month, and apart from the night of the exhibition, I hadn't seen her since. She said it was enjoyable when she was working specifically with a student, when she looked at their work and could show them where she thought they could improve it. One student, she said, had a good eye for detail but a poor sense of the frame. What they caught was almost always interesting but they had information on the edge of the frame that needed to be incorporated or excluded. Instead, it made the shot look messy as soon as you found yourself looking beyond the main focus. Another student had a great sense of the frame but nothing inside it captured your attention. Whether it was a building, a tree, a person walking along the street, one sensed it could have been any building, any tree, any person. The frame was without content yet without being empty. She said to the student that of course the frame mattered but it wasn't all that mattered. They needed to find material that augmented it. In such moments she was happy and felt useful; when it came to generalisations, though, she found herself stranded. Roger was instinctively theoretical, she believed; someone for whom a general comment was bolstered by various theories that sometimes didn't say anything about individual works of art (though they often did) but that seemed plausibly prevailing. She didn't have that skill and certainly hadn't the knowledge.
Though our discussion that day was mainly theoretical and pedagogical, I sensed also an irritation towards Roger that seemed deliberately obscured; by talking about work she could discuss him indirectly. Perhaps there had been tension after I left; most of the others, May said, stayed in the pub until closing time, including her and I assumed Roger too. After we exited the cafe, May put a hand on my shoulder, knowing I didn't like to hug, and said I was a good listener. More than that; I didn't ask awkward questions. She wasn't the first person who had complimented me on my willingness to listen but I think she might have been the first to note the discretion involved. I have always probably been so wary of people asking me certain questions that I haven't been willing to ask them myself. If people want to talk to me, reveal themselves to me, I feel safe; like I am protecting my own secrets. Some might see the conversations I have with many as one-sided but I have never viewed it like that: it gives me company without violation; allows me to socialise without terror.
Though I hadn't met Roger before that evening at May's exhibition, I knew of him and had seen him on several occasions, but before that night they had remained separate beings. May often talked about Roger while she was his student and over the last three or four years I have been a regular at the cafe where May and I had discussed her teaching. During that time Roger had come in on numerous occasions but I never assumed that this man was the same person who had been teaching May and the irony was that I had little interest in looking up online the person she told me about, though she provided his name and thus it would have been easy to enquire further. But I would have been interested in knowing more about this person I would often see but only had a face to go on. Maybe the technology has been developed allowing us to access information with no more than a face but if so, I am not the person to know how to use it.
May had described Roger as rigorous and demanding, confident in his work and successful enough at it while at the same time having no great ambition. He was a theorist who wrote the occasional book but mainly articles: when an idea came to him why bloat it into a book, he said, when it can be slender and seductive as an essay? I remembered that remark when May mentioned it and thought of how I could never make such a comment not because I didn't write (though I don't) but because of the sexual connotation in the statement. Yet now that I link Roger Bilton with the man whose face I would often see in the cafe, it makes sense that the one who offered such a remark would be the same man I saw often sitting alone reading; sometimes with others, and usually, when he was in company, with women much younger than himself. In both his solitude and his company I saw confidence even if they perhaps took different forms. I thought too of his comment about spending his pension on young women.
Several months passed before I saw Bilton again, and it was once more at an exhibition opening, this time at the art college and just before Christmas. A well-known Scottish artist, living in New York, was giving talks at the art colleges in Edinburgh and in Glasgow (where he had studied thirty-five years earlier), and accompanying his appearance in Edinburgh was an exhibition of works by less well-known artists he wanted to support. These were people of his generation who never became as established as he believed they should have become, and his lecture (which some took to be a rant) explored the milieu in which he and others worked, exploring why some became famous and others didn't. He proposed that much of it rested on people's willingness to accept the stupidity of the media. He did and became well-known and he named several others who were resistant and thus retained an honourable obscurity. He achieved, instead, a modest but undeniably dishonourable fame. It was a joke that seemed to demand a laugh and yet the tone he said it in appeared determined to elicit no humour, perhaps because, as I and others no doubt knew, that a couple of those artists whose paintings were being exhibited were no longer alive, and that their deaths may have had a little to do with their failure. I wondered if May would have captured their catastrophe.
After talking for twenty minutes, he showed a series of slides, a combination of work by the established and the obscure in contemporary Scottish art. He then noted that work by an artist friend of his had never sold for more than 400, but several of those paintings had influenced his own and other artists' works that had sold for five figures. He even proposed at the end of his talk that any earnings over a certain sum should go into a fund that provided a basic income for all artists; the only condition resting on exhibition acceptance, not on sales. He said in France the state provides what is called 'intermittents du spectacle', a sort of aesthetic benefits system, but while it may be prone to corruption, it allowed artists to survive and thrive in their work. Maybe people would baulk at the notion that the general public should pay for creative endeavour but why not at least have successful artists pay for their less financially secure companions? After the talk, one brave individual asked the artist how much of his earnings he gave away to help the work of others. The artist replied that maybe the question should be asked of some of the artists who he may or may not have helped; he didn't want to discuss the vulgarity of personal gestures. What he did say was that however generous he was, it wouldn't answer the general problem. His answer seemed to me subtle rather than evasive, but at the drinks afterwards, and with the artist absent for half an hour, several people in the group I found myself in reckoned he was probably a hypocrite.
I saw May, Roger and a couple of others in discussion and moved over to their group with an inevitable inconspicuousness: my presence was sensed rather than acknowledged and while I didn't feel excluded it was a while before anybody actively included me. May asked Roger if he remembered me and I expected a polite apology or at best a half-hearted recollection but Roger said of course he did, remembered what we discussed, and also later, recalled even his moment of indiscretion, which took me a minute to recall. He asked if I was joining them at the restaurant, and I said I wasn't aware of an invite, and he said well you are aware of it now and off I went, with May, Roger and I arriving at the Tollcross eaterie where it seemed the whole place was taken up by the artist, his friends, and numerous people from the art college. The atmosphere was already loud and lively, perhaps due to the free wine imbibed after the talk, which took place at five, and where people had started drinking by half-six, or maybe more because everyone was in the presence of the famous artist, and this created an enthusiastic mood.
We were the last to arrive and while May found herself in the one remaining seat at a table next to the artist's, Roger and I had the two available seats at a table with people we didn't know, and quite near the entrance. While we nodded to the others, throughout the dinner Roger and I talked amongst ourselves, or rather he talked, opening up that remark he made about spending his pension on young women. He realised it was an indiscreet comment to make, especially to someone he had never met before, but he was used to making such remarks and didn't think too much about the consequences. Some were offended by the comments, others ignored them, but he said he noticed when he offered it that I looked as though I wasn't surprised; as if I knew him perhaps better than he realised - that he wasn't quite the stranger he thought I was. He said this frequently happened and it was no reflection upon me (though I knew it was): quite often he had taught people in the past and came across them years later, treating them as the strangers he thought they were until they revealed he had taught them a decade earlier, or that he realised that they were looking at him with a familiarity he couldn't quite match.
I said that I wasn't one of his ex-students but I had seen him often in a cafe near the art college, and added that perhaps the comment didn't surprise me because I would see him there often with women thirty or forty years younger than he was. I asked him whether in present circumstances, where relationships with large age differences seem more disapproved of than in the past, he found this inappropriate. I tried to ask as gently as I could, more curious than judgemental. It was as though I wanted to know about his apparent success with people more than half his age but also his ethos; whether he thought what he was doing was right. As I phrased my questions, he said that nobody had quite asked him this, showing usually either admiration or disdain. Some of his friends, his own age, openly envied him, others, often their wives, and their children, disapproved, and a friend's daughter even called him a pest at a large dinner party even though he never approached her or her two friends. It was the principle of the thing she said, and didn't stay for dessert.
Yet for him it was never about the principle of the thing but the experiential reality. He didn't always feel he had so much in common with women his age, frequently felt immature around them, and maybe he was, but it was more that he reckoned he was still searching for things they had found or that they accepted the failure in finding them. With women much younger than him he felt they responded more to his naivety and had enthusiasms of their own that matched his for aesthetic experience. As he started to talk, I sensed a man morally clearing his throat, trying to create the space for justification even if I was probably inclined to judge him less than most. Maybe that was why he was talking to me, opening up as he may or may not have done with others, but I sensed that a recent event made this unburdening more relevant than before, or that now he was retired, he could see the ridiculousness of his pursuits and why he formulated it to me as spending his pension on young women.
During the evening, which included a couple of drinks in a bar across the road from the restaurant, and where May and others chose not to join us, he told me why he thought what he was doing may well have been wrong but he was still resistant to seeing it as a matter of principle, as his friend's daughter proposed, though he admitted principles often came out of the problems of experience. When he was in his twenties and thirties, the women he would see were around his age, and on two occasions he became engaged. Once in his mid-twenties which was an impetuous attempt to hold on to a woman who made him so desperately in need that he misguidedly thought he could feel secure by marrying her. The engagement lasted a couple of months; she left the ring on the desk of the room he was renting and may well have gone off with a flatmate who had moved out the day before. The affair was that precarious. The second engagement was a decade later, and she was a couple of years younger than he was but wished if not to start a family then at least to share a life, and while he thought of nobody with such affection, and others might say with such regret, at the time he knew that he couldn't imagine himself faithful for the remainder of his life even if there was nobody, when they were together, who he would have left her over.
He left he thought to protect her future feelings and in the process did lasting damage to her present ones. She did eventually marry and have two children but it took her a long time to find the love she needed from a man who could assuage a hurt that could never quite register itself as anger. As she said to him years later, when they found themselves at a friend's fiftieth birthday party, if he had left her for someone else, if he had lied to her or been in any way callous, she could have hated him more and perhaps recovered more quickly. She said it with a tenderness toward her former self rather than towards him in the present, and later in the evening, when he saw how she interacted with her husband, how attentive he was to her, and how affectionate she was towards him, he knew he had been right to leave.
He was often lonely in his forties and yet knew he still desired women far too much to be faithful, and couldn't countenance a marriage in which he would continuously cheat. At the same time, he knew he was no longer young and yet the women remained so, and he often thought about the appropriateness of his behaviour. But he said that the phrase a dirty old man contains within it an insult and two facts, and it wouldn't be fair to turn the facts into insults: what he believed was that he never approached a woman who showed resistance, never insisted on getting someone's number, or asking her back to his flat after a drink or a visit to a restaurant. He suspected sometimes people slept with him to find out what it was like, to see how a man of older years was as a lover, to see how firm or how flaccid an ageing body happened to be. He sometimes wondered if he was more successful as an older lover than as a younger one; that he possessed now a novelty value while his younger self was just one amongst many a young woman could choose from.
I looked at him for the first time with the eyes of a younger person appraising his attractiveness. He was of modest height, slim build, his medium length hair, grey and thin but one wouldn't describe him as bald, or even balding, and though his face was puffy in places and lined elsewhere, his eyes still looked youthful, that bright green-blue. I also tried to recall my very first impression and I think it was of the anomalous; that he moved more youthfully than I might have expected and spoke (when I would overhear him) with the enthusiasm I would have credited to a younger mind. Maybe it was his voice too, soft and yet sure; ironic and yet sincere in its intonation. It wasn't that I thought young women would find him attractive necessarily, but that they would be surprised that they found him so, and therein may have lain his appeal.
So, yes, he said he still had lovers much younger than he was himself as he entered retirement, but it was an incident several months earlier, only a few months after his 67th birthday, that he reassessed, which is too weak a verb, his relationship with women more than half his age.
He met the person at a gallery cafe and she was on her break. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and with no tables available she asked if she could share the one at which he was sitting. He said of course, and they both continued eating in silence for several minutes when she wondered if he had seen the exhibition. He said yes, asked if she had too, and he wasn't sure if her nod meant that she wished to say nothing more, and had only enquired out of politeness; that in asking to sit at his table the least she could do was pose a question. But he ventured a further question of his own and asked her what she thought, and when she offered just a couple of telling remarks, he felt entitled to engage her a little further. She in turn asked him what he thought, and he knew after what they had both offered, a further conversation seemed likely, as she looked at her watch and said she must be going. It was only a ten-minute break, she said, but in a way that meant perhaps she wished it had been longer, and not only so she could finish her coffee and her cake. He stayed for another twenty minutes, and when she passed as he was leaving, smiled at him and said she hoped to see him soon, he again took her remark as more than politeness and said he would love to continue the conversation. She said she would like that as well, gave him her number and told him to phone her some time. The look on her face was one of surprise but it was an expression that suggested she surprised herself, and she looked around as though worried management might be looking on.
He phoned her a couple of days later and proposed they meet at a destination of her choice, at a time that would best suit her. They met at the Botanics at two on a Wednesday afternoon and, sitting in the cafe, the drizzle that they could see so faintly through the widow gave way to sunshine they couldn't ignore as she proposed they walk. While in the cafe he explained in some detail and he supposed with some expertise, the exhibition they had talked briefly about the day she asked to share his table. As they walked she was the expert, naming plants he had never heard of and explaining their properties, their remedial qualities, where they were commonly found. He enjoyed how fluidly she explained to him the plants and was pleased too that his hip joints, which sometimes made walking long distances discomforting, especially in the damper months, were causing no problems on this mid-summer day. He felt half his age and thus not too far from her own, though he supposed people who passed them assumed that he may have been her father rather than countenancing a burgeoning affair.
That evening they went for dinner to a restaurant of his choosing. They were passing and he was surprised there were free tables, realised it was Wednesday, and there they sat and ate a seven-course taster menu as the outside light weakened and the interior light softened. The meal was expensive and he insisted on paying, and she insisted on at least buying him a drink at a pub that turned out to be busier than the restaurant, but where they found a table, and where the couch that accompanied it allowed them to sit adjacently. Roger thought that the intimacy seemed to be creating itself, not just in the conversations they were having that revealed elements of their past but also in the places they found themselves in. Any deliberation on his part must have been met by deliberation on hers, and also a little by contingencies like the weather clearing up earlier that day and the seating available to them that night in the pub.
Yet it was perhaps out of such intimacy that he was offered revelations that instead of augmenting the likelihood of a sexual assignation, diluted it. As they went back to his flat in the New town, with not so much as a kiss offered or received thus far, he said to me that she had slowly over the evening, but never so clearly as when she was in his flat, revealed details that led him to think she may well have been his daughter. He knew that over the years there was a chance his casual affairs may have produced a child, as he wasn't always so careful, and sometimes assumed unless he was told otherwise that the person he was sleeping with was taking contraception. It might have been a selfish assumption, one that left another holding the baby even if they could have come calling for alimony. But nobody had ever asked for the latter and so he assumed he had no child.
As she had talked over the evening, as she revealed her age, where she was born and a few details about the single mother who had brought her up, so he came to see while it wasn't certain that she was his daughter, it was very possible. She seemed oblivious to this possibility and understandably may have assumed that each revelatory remark moved them closer to an assignation as he found himself moving further away from it. She was sitting on the chair opposite his at the dining table, sipping on camomile tea, and telling him of a memory she had when she was in a school play. It was the opening night and she was in the lead role. As the play started she looked out at the expectant faces, with everyone's mum and dad, or at least one or the other, sitting in the first two rows, but she couldn't see her mother there at all. By the end of the play, as they received the applause, she scanned the room and saw at the very back her mother, as she wondered how much of the play she had managed to catch.
She knew her mother worked long hours in a job that didn't pay so well, and knew that she would have tried to have taken time off but that it would have been refused. She didn't know if she was to feel sorry for herself or sorry for her mother, and such feelings in a ten-year-old girl may lend themselves to future maturity or stunt it. She didn't know what it did to her; that was for others to decide, she added. She supposed she was now mature beyond her years and that may have been why she had been attracted to him, saying, like other young women he had slept with, that younger men appeared sometimes in too much of a hurry; they didn't listen, were often hasty in bed, and talked too much about their forthcoming achievements. But what Roger needed to do at that moment was talk about his past rather than any possible future, and there he was with a young woman he had been initially attracted to and through the evening that feeling had turned into one of concerned affection. It had turned into the sort of love, he assumed, a father would have for his child.
Yet to tell her this, to say his feelings had changed on an assumption, that as she told him where she lived, a few details about the father she never knew, that her mother was originally from Belgrade, but came to the UK shortly before the war and never went back even to visit until long after it, he felt confident he may have been her father.
It would have been 25 years earlier when he had met Mirjana, who was appearing in a play at the Edinburgh fringe, and during her three weeks in the city, after they met on the night of the opening, they saw each other every afternoon, and he waited for her after the performance as well. When she returned to London they remained in contact but when around six months after that he said he was passing through London and he would like very much to meet up, she said no; that it was a lovely affair in Scotland, and she would always remember those weeks with great fondness, but she would prefer not to see him. He assumed she refused because she was no longer single, or that perhaps there had always been a boyfriend or husband. Now, sitting opposite this young woman who he decided vaguely resembled her, and whose face he searched to see if she at all resembled him, he wondered if the vague semblance between Mirjana and this young woman was hazy because the memory was indistinct; that they may well have looked quite alike. He tried to remember gestures, aware that sometimes mothers pass them onto their offspring, and recalled that Mirjana would put her hand to her mouth whenever she found something funny, and noticed earlier in the evening this young woman did the same. By the end of the evening, he was convinced that if she wasn't his daughter she was Mirjana's and at the very least he found affection for the mother returning as he found any desire towards this potential lover disappear.
He wondered for a few minutes if he could explain to her that she may have been his daughter, but how do you do that when the person sitting across from you has come back to your flat as a lover? He thought he could perhaps reveal this parental possibility when she seemed to sense a reluctance in him to take the situation further and may have surmised that he was thinking of someone else; that perhaps were they to sleep together it wouldn't be her that he would have on his mind. The young woman would he assumed be thinking that this other person on his mind was a woman he may have been seeing recently, but how could he explain it was her mother he believed he was thinking of?
A few minutes later he showed her to the door and she thanked him for a lovely night without it seemed any irony, as if the point of their evening was to create intimacy without the necessity of passion. It was an unusual encounter she might have thought and she wasn't wrong, but he mused afterwards over how much more unusual it may potentially have been. He also wondered if in time she might discover that he was her mother's lover, possibly her father, and only her mother would be qualified to make that claim with any confidence. Perhaps she would tell her mother about a strange encounter with a man many years her senior, and if it was Mirjana happened to be her mother, she might tell her daughter of an encounter she had twenty-five years earlier in the same place, and they may discuss their encounters as ones with two distinct men, or find that they might well be talking about the same man.
He appeared to have reached the end of his story but, after he asked whether I would like one more drink as last orders were called, I said why not. I expected we would talk about other things when he came back, with a soft and smooth Speyside whisky for both of us, and this seemed to be so as he talked about photography again. He asked if I remembered after May's exhibition we discussed the idea of the catastrophe; that moment in the photograph where the past and the future are in suspension. He hadn't thought about it before but that night after the young woman left, he recalled a story Mirjana had told him about a cousin of hers. He was a soldier who along with a hundred others entered a conquered Croatian village and hiding in a house was a teenage boy of no more than sixteen who was found with a rifle beside him. His cousin assumed the boy would have been about to use it, and shot him in the head, only to see a father lying dead a few feet away and worked out that probably when the father was dying he had thrown the rifle at the son so he could protect himself. In that second before he killed the boy he assumed the boy would have tried to kill him but he was not holding the gun when the cousin entered the house: he could see retrospectively that the boy wasn't at all a threat. He shot an innocent he knew, and Mirjana had mentioned it to Roger when they were discussing split-second decisions and how it is hard to judge others who have never been asked to make one. He wondered if that was why he was often fascinated by moments in photography that contain the instance, the before and after at the moment of the shift. He hadn't thought about it but he did remember Mirjana saying that her cousin was destroyed by one moment in his life.
There was no photograph of it, Roger supposed, but it was no doubt recollected often by the young man in the opposite of tranquillity. Roger didn't say any more about it, but I found myself thinking that his own story, of what could have been a close call with incest, contained within it the opposite of the moment, and was aware that no photograph would have captured it. Except perhaps, one by May, who, years after the event, might have been able to show the catastrophe on Roger's face just as she might have been inclined not to capture in an image the moment of that decision made by Mirjana's cousin. she would have instead shown the ravaged face of someone who had spent many years thinking about how it could have been different. I also wondered if Roger, in what may have been a close call with the incestuous, had thought whether any of the other young woman he had slept with in the past could have been his daughter; that their intimacy, which would have been sexual, wasn't quite intimacy enough for him realise that the catastrophe had indeed taken place. If he were to think about it, I wondered what ravages would eventually visit his visage as I imagined a photograph, taken by May, of Roger with a quite different demeanour.
© Tony McKibbin