One Thursday evening I was sitting in the pub drinking with a group of friends when I saw at a nearby table someone with long, dark brown hair looking across at me, wearing jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt with Guatemala written on it. I looked back, and couldn't quite work out whether she was looking across because she recognized me, or that she thought me attractive, and I found myself looking back at her as if trying to match the ambivalence of her own gaze.
About twenty minutes later we were both standing at the bar ordering drinks and she said she was sure she knew me from somewhere, but again in such a way that I couldn't really say whether she was offering this as a chat-up line or as a pressing attempt to recall my face from the past. I proposed that the centre of Edinburgh was a small city, and so many faces can seem familiar. We talked for a few minutes at the bar and, after being served first, she went back to her table where a group of her friends were sitting. By the end of the evening we were the only two groups left in the pub, and the two tables that were next to each other seemed almost to merge into one as a couple of people from my table started to talk to people at hers. I looked across at her and, since we were within earshot of each other, I asked if she could recall where she might know me from. She replied that she still hadn't placed me, but believed it would be only a matter of time, if she chose to pay the thought enough attention.
That would have been around six months ago, and not long after that night in the pub, Rebecca and I started going out together. It wasn't initially much of an emotional connection, and it seemed to me that we resembled many an online couple that built a relationship on the back of relative indifference. A number of friends I knew would connect with someone through an online dating agency, meet up, and see each other for a couple of months before the fundamental indifference met fundamental differences and they would part. Yet where the friends would meet a complete stranger and find after a few months they had little in common, the indifference in my case and Rebecca's seemed to come from another place altogether. That place, I first thought, would have been the past that neither of us could recall when we saw each other in the pub that Thursday evening.
We had come across each other again exactly a week later in the pub, and after talking for a while she gave me her phone number and I phoned her the following day as we arranged to meet that Saturday night. It is difficult to say retrospectively whether the nagging sense of semi-recognition added to the frisson or diluted it, and perhaps the very purpose of this story is to try and locate the difference between a sub-conscious recognition that adds to desire and an underlying sense that mitigates it. Do we not often find that people we yearn after have a resemblance to someone we knew in the past, and that the coincidence of meeting someone in the present that echoes back to that past can generate intense feeling, where to meet someone whom we know nothing about except for a few on-line details, and then arrange a date on that basis, does the opposite? Yet I assumed this relationship seemed to have something in common with both the former and the latter.
As I waited in the restaurant, I saw her come in through the front door and I instantly felt sexually attracted to the way she walked and to what she was wearing. It was a warm spring evening and as she handed a light jacket over to the waitress, and came towards me, I saw she was wearing a pair of jeans and a green slip that brought out the colour of her distinctly green eyes. As we chatted over the starter, engaged over the main course and flirted over the desert, all the while enjoying a bottle of Argentinean Malbec that she recommended, so I wondered whether I was enjoying especially her company or the nature of the situation. Afterwards we went for a drink in the bar next door, after that went back to her flat where we talked and smooched, and then I left at around four in the morning.
We met up again several days later, and within two weeks of seeing each other across the bar that Thursday evening, we were sleeping together. We would usually meet up about three times a week. I would stay at hers Saturday and Sunday nights, and she would stay at mine one night sometime between Monday and Thursday. She worked in Human Resources at a bank in the city, and she would often get up at six in the morning, get two buses into work, go to the gym at the complex where she was employed, have breakfast in the staff canteen, and work between 8.30 and 5.00. I taught English several mornings a week, wouldn't usually start before 9.30, and what I liked about the situation was that she had far less time than I did. When she stayed over at mine I knew that after dinner she would fall asleep during a film I would put on, that I would wake her up after it was finished, and that sometimes we would have sex and sometimes not. This low impact affair I believed suited me well, and it wasn't until near the end of four months together we recalled where we remembered each other from, and it was around that time our casual affair, that neither of us acknowledged as really anything more, became, let us say, significant.
But I don't believe it was only this recollection that led to the shift in our relationship. It was also related to the presence of a new student on the language course that I taught. She was ten years younger than I was, and came from Paris determined to go back in several months' time with a fluent grasp of the language. She first came to my classes a couple of months into my affair with Rebecca, and over the next three months or so I would meet up with Pascale as often as I could in between the times I felt increasingly obligated to see Rebecca. Where, as I said, Rebecca would often fall asleep on the couch to a film we were watching, the films I saw in the cinema with Pascale would leave her keen to talk about them afterwards. Usually they were American and British, most of them classics, and Pascale would ask me questions about the use of language, behavioural codes, social politics and other aspects of the films. In our conversations after it was as though we were watching it all over again as we pondered specific scenes, trying to remember them in detail. I don't think I ever talked about a film with Rebecca after we watched it during those first few months, even when she did manage to stay awake.
Pascale was young but she wasn't beautiful, and if I were to compare her to Rebecca I would say that Rebecca's features were subtle and Pascale's bold; that Rebecca's attractiveness would work better in monochcrome; Pascale's in technicolor. Rebecca's was based on bone structure; Pascale's on the youthful brown skin, clear eyes and a dress sense that played up her narrow waist and her abundant cleavage. She didn't look like an intellectual, especially, but her thought was subtler than her dress sense. With Rebecca it often felt more the reverse.
That is at least what I believed at the time, as I would look forward to seeing, and talking with, Pascale, and found myself stifling yawns in the company of Rebecca. But it wasn't only that I was slightly bored in Rebecca's company; I realised I was also becoming irritated with her - as though each night spent over with her was time spent away from Pascale. This was obviously absurd as Pascale had a number of acquaintances in the city, had joined tango classes, did Yoga occasionally and was part of a running club that she attended once a week. I couldn't entirely convince myself that when I met up with Pascale I wasn't being slotted in. One evening for example we arranged to meet at six thirty and I had cancelled meeting up with Rebecca hoping that the informal two hour class we had arranged that evening would lead, as it occasionally had done before, to us continuing talking and getting food in a cheap diner. As eight thirty approached Pascale looked at her watch and said that she would really have to leave when the two hours were up; she had planned to see a friend.
Afterwards I was agitated and didn't want to spend the evening alone, and phoned Rebecca to see if she had eaten yet. She said that she hadn't; that she wasn't really hungry. When I asked if it was be possible to go round, and that I'd buy some groceries on the way, she said of course, and so round I went. What was unusual was that we talked through till two in the morning, and it was on that evening, perhaps the first time where we had spoken for hours since that night in the restaurant, where we both recalled where we had known each other from.
Over dinner she reminded me of what she had said when we'd met in the pub; that she would remember if she chose to give it enough thought, and over the last few days that is what she had given it. She said that some years before she was sitting on a warm summer's day in the square at Portree in Skye, when someone came over to her and asked if she knew where the youth hostel was. She had pointed to her rucksack, saying that was where she had been staying, and that she was soon going to get the bus back down to Glasgow, where she was then living. She had pointed me in the direction of the hostel, and I had walked off through the square and as I prepared to cross the road I must have noticed the hostel sign and turned back to her and waved as if in recognition.
When she mentioned this I also recalled vaguely someone sitting there as I asked for directions, but I couldn't match that face to hers, and I wondered how she had matched mine to that moment. As she cleared away the dishes, she said it wasn't my face that she remembered, but a jacket. A few days before I had arrived at her flat by bike and as it was lightly raining I was wearing a red waterproof that she believed reminded her of something. She set to work thinking about it, and eventually recalled that sunny afternoon in Skye, and the oddity of my wearing a waterproof when there was no hint of rain. I recalled that I was wearing it because of the wind: I'd been cycling from Kyle of Lochalsh, and while Portree was sheltered, that hadn't been the case going through the Cuillins. As the event became increasingly clear in my mind; Rebecca's face from the past still escaped vivid recollection. She wondered if it was because she had short hair then.
She remembered being touched by the gesture of my turning round, and perhaps because not many months before when she had split up with her previous lover she recalled that whenever they parted he never looked back, though she often did hoping that he might. To have a complete stranger do so after having asked for directions made her, she admitted, not remember him, but remember clearly the gesture. Now that she was going out with the very person who offered it, she couldn't help but feel closer to me.
At that moment I thought about telling her the only reason I was eating dinner with her was that Pascale didn't want to eat dinner with me, and yet I didn't do so for at least two reasons. Not only was I now her lover, I was also the person who had given her a little faith in the world that day in Portree. I realised, too, that I was now glad that Pascale had cancelled, happy that I was sitting eating dinner with Rebecca and that we were at last talking with each other.
That night I stayed over, and we made love and held each other till the morning. As I walked her to the bus stop, and then started to walk back to my flat, I turned round and waved. She was looking in my direction, and waved in return. It was the first time that we had parted where I had looked back to say goodbye.
As I walked home several things occurred to me; not the least of which concerned how a few years ago I was an exemplar of human decency, and now could be with Rebecca for months and never care to turn round and wave. I may not have on-line dated, I might not have slept with numerous people in the last five years, but had I not become part of the indifference of urban living, exhausted by so many human exchanges in one form or another, even if I happened to live in an urban space that was hardly a metropolis? I wondered whether my interest in Pascale wasn't part of this increased insensitivity, and yet for all the wondering I gave it, the feeling that if I had the opportunity to sleep with her I wouldn't do so was only beginning to go away. Her company, I felt, still excited me.
The next time I met Pascale she mentioned she was going back to France in a few weeks and that she would like to have as many lessons as possible. Could we meet up several times a week, go and see films, eat and talk; maybe even go for walks where I could as we walked tell her the names of the plants that I knew, the trees, general nature? I nodded in agreement, excited by the possibility but of course hardly oblivious to the naked calculation of her request. I was well aware that I was the only native speaker that she had got to know well, and knew that she was practical, efficient and generally sure of what she wanted out of situations.
We had talked over the weeks about her emotional and sexual liaisons in the past, and the common denominator was her own development in whatever form she thought it ought to take. She talked one night after we had seen a British film partly set in Spain, that two years before she was in Barcelona for six weeks and had befriended a young man whom, she admitted, was probably besotted by her, and that all she wanted was for him to teach her Spanish. As she said this, she managed to look at me in such a way that she was saying it was different in this instance, without at the same time offering a look that remotely suggested she would want something sexual with me. She added that during that time he showed her many of Gaudi's works, showed her some of Barcelona's best cafes, walks, and second-hand shops, and made her fall in love with the city but not at all with him. She recalled that it was similar with her first boyfriend in Paris. He was from the city (she was from Montpellier in the South), and had shown her so many wonderful aspects of the capital that after a few months she had fallen in love with the city but not quite with him, and wanted to explore the facets of it with others. I was relieved that she would be leaving soon.
Yet over the next couple of weeks I saw as much of Pascale as I saw of Rebecca, and during this period I enjoyed my time with Pascale but no more so than the evenings I shared with Becky. I never told Rebecca that I was meeting up with anyone in particular. Over the months our routine had become established, and as long as I would see Rebecca one evening during the week and over the weekend, she asked me no questions about what else I happened to be doing, or who else I had seen. If she had asked specific questions I would have answered them. I no longer felt ill-disposed towards her, and each evening we met up we would talk rather as we had the night she told me of our brief exchange in Portree. It was as though in that recollection she had given texture and meaning to a relationship that could have been, had the memory been more prosaic, another indifferent affair built up from a meaningless contingency or a purposeful, internet induced meeting. It was also meaningful because Rebecca had remembered; that out of the manifold memories in a human's mind, she managed to find one important yet brief moment from her past. I felt significant; with Pascale I felt useful.
By the time Pascale left, though I was no longer interested in sleeping with her, and was perhaps even falling in love with Rebecca, I nevertheless followed through on our meetings, and on the last day even saw her off at the train station. She had said the day before that I was the most meaningful person she had met in Edinburgh, and I wondered to myself whether her English was not quite good enough to differentiate between the meaningful and the useful, or whether she really was beginning to have some feelings for me.
She was leaving in the mid-afternoon and I said I would meet her at her flat and we could get a taxi to the station. She lived not far from the language school where I was teaching, and I said I would go along to hers after the last morning class, and after getting a bit of lunch. She said that we could eat together, that the least she could do was treat me. On all the other occasions we had eaten out we shared the bill. I had never offered to pay for both of us, and nor had she. In our informal tutoring sessions I had charged her whatever she could afford. She had given me ten pounds an hour. She named the place where we could meet, and it was a very well-respected restaurant in the part of the town in which she lived, and though I would sometimes lunch in the area after class, I always saw it as too expensive for the purposes of post-teaching hunger. I was pleasantly surprised that she proposed it, and was quite happy to try whatever was on the menu.
As we sat eating at a table outside in the warm, late mid-summer weather, eating trout and sharing a bottle of white wine, I asked why she so wanted to treat me. She explained that it was true, as I might have guessed, that she may have exploited men in the past, but she believed she did so only as a preemptive gesture to avoid the men exploiting her. The boyfriend in Paris, for example, wanted a trophy girlfriend; the boy in Barcelona wanted to charm her into sleeping with him. With me she found no underlying motive and enjoyed my company all the more for it. The least she could do was treat me before she left, and even give herself a particularly fond memory of her time in Scotland, where she met at least one lovely human being. As she said this I wanted to offer a kiss. But not to Pascale, but rather to Rebecca - who managed to put into context the feelings I had for Pascale by virtue of bringing out the qualities I used to possess but had almost forgotten.
Where a few weeks before exactly the same superficial actions - lunching with Pascale and seeing her off at the station - would have seemed clumsily and sexually motivated - now they had a curious, almost spiritual grace. As we got out of the taxi and I carried most of her luggage to the station platform, she said that she should be carrying her own luggage, while I insisted that it was the least I could do after she treated me to so lovely a lunch. Yet though I offered the comment as though it were a fair transaction, I believe there was nothing transactive in the motive.
The train which was coming from Inverness and passing through Edinburgh to London, stopped only for a couple of minutes, and I quickly put her luggage in the already almost full space available for it, and pecked her on the cheek as the whistle went and I jumped off the train. As the train pulled away I looked round and saw that she was moving along the train compartment and waving furiously at me as she did so. I waved briefly, started walking and then turned round again, and offered another wave as she still looked in my direction. As I looked away again and started walking back along the station platform I wondered how many ways there were for human beings to conquer indifference.
That evening I went over to Rebecca's for dinner, and as we ate she said she noticed something had changed, that over the last month I'd been very attentive, that I would ask her far more questions and would often hug her in my sleep. She said that it was not a lie when she told me she remembered me because of my red cycling jacket, but it was only expressing a half truth. Around the same time that she told me this she said she saw me coming out of a film with someone else. She knew she had no rights over me - was it not a casual affair that we had agreed upon? - but she also assumed that we were not at the same time seeing anyone else. However, she noticed that though there was no physical contact with this woman she saw me with, and believed the person was simply a friend, she still felt slightly jealous, and it was at that time she determined to remember where she knew me from. It would have been a couple of days before the incident at the cinema that she saw me wearing the red jacket, and maybe out of a feeling of jealousy, and that jacket as a trigger, she worked out that we had met in Skye.
As I asked her if she would still occasionally wear anything that she wore that day, she said if she recalled correctly the first time we met in the pub she was wearing the very t-shirt that she had worn in Portree, one that she had bought in Guatemala several months before, and where she'd had her head shaved before travelling further into central and South America. It was then that I had a flash of memory, as I remembered thinking that day if the young woman offering directions had grown her hair long she would probably have been very attractive but that short hair didn't suit her at all. I also thought about the many layers of memory we possess and how my relationship with Rebecca was nothing like an internet liaison at all, at least as I had always defined it. Here we were, two people with no more than a sliver of a distant past together, perhaps making out of that moment the opposite of the indifferent. I leant over and kissed her, and she looked at me slyly, almost as if wondering whether I was kissing her for being the person sitting opposite me, or the one whom I briefly exchanged a few words with a few years ago. If she had asked me I would probably say it lay in the curious gap between the two.
© Tony McKibbin