It was very recently when a French friend, David, told me that over the last year he had been renting his apartment on a part-time basis through an acquaintance of his. The acquaintance was called Melinda, and she was teaching two days a week in Nice, and so rented a room in someone's flat for one night. David worked as a night porter in a hospital, and was looking to augment his income with a little extra, and thought since he worked in the evenings perhaps Melinda knew of someone in the south who needed each week to be in Paris for a couple of days. She said there was someone in the French department (Melinda taught sociology) and she would let her know.
A couple of weeks later David and Melinda met up again; with Melinda saying there was someone who was interested in taking the flat for one night a week during term time, and maybe for the occasional weekend as well if he happened to be working or out of Paris. David worked about seven nights a month, and said he could arrange his shifts around her needs.
I was a little surprised that David was willing to rent his apartment, since he was someone who happened to be very generous in many ways but not when it came to his living space. I had been coming to France every summer for a few weeks over the last seven or eight years, and yet I never once stayed in his flat. There were other friends I had in Paris no more friendly and kind than David, but who when they were away would insist I take their apartment, and that is where I would be based on these trips to France. It wasn't only that unlike the others he worked in a job where he was not expected to take his holidays in August (where many French firms closed for several weeks and all the staff would take their vacation), it was more I sensed a trauma that centred on his apartment and that we had never talked about. That I would usually come in August meant that it never became a problem, but not once did he propose that perhaps I would like to come in September, or that we could flat swap at any other time of the year - a suggestion I had made on several occasions but that was never taken up.
Yet whenever I was inParis, David would invite me round for dinner, was always the first to insist on paying for drinks when we went out, and if he liked a CD that he bought, and thought I would like too, he would make a copy. I didn't ask him why this change of mind, why he was willing to rent his apartment out for the odd night, but I suspected it was related to a recent acquisition, or rather a gift. His late grandmother had owned a small house in Brittany, and his parents had left it to him. He had no brothers and sisters to split it with, and the only inconveniences were a few repairs he had to make, and some local tax he would have to pay. Though he would stay there only a few weeks of the year, and as many weekends as he could, I was not surprised when he said that he didn't want to rent it, but I was surprised that he was willing to allow a stranger into his flat to pay for these expenses. I surmised that he had somehow managed to shift his neurosis from theParisapartment (which he rented at a cheap rate) to the cottage that he now owned.
Indeed this summer when I visited and he told me about the cottage, and also about his plan, I noticed that many of his records, music magazines and books on music were absent, and he said that he had moved them to Brittany. I asked if this would cause any problems (he also wrote for a couple of small music magazines) and he thought not: much of what he needed for work could be found online, and he intended to go to Brittany every other weekend and could pick up what he needed when he was there. He said he had purchased a 125 horsepower motorbike, saying that otherwise the journey was an inconvenience: he would have had to take an expensive train and then an additional bus to get to this small village next to the coast.
As David agreed to rent the flat to this colleague of Melinda's, he insisted that he didn't want to know anything about this person at all. Each month she would leave a sum of cash for him on the kitchen table that would cover however many nights she had stayed, and David said he felt no need for a contract to be signed: he trusted Melinda to be a good enough judge of character to allow the agreement to be informal. David thought it somehow easier to have someone staying in his flat if she remained a stranger, and though of course he would find the odd hair on the floor, and return home in the morning with a faint smell of perfume in the apartment, the guest remained a person without any elements that made her a presence in his flat. She was an absence, a paying absence.
The friendship David and I had was important but intermittent. I lived inEdinburghand though every few years he came toScotland, and most summers I would be inParisfor a week or two, we weren't in regular contact. In the past relationships would start and finish between the times we had seen each other. Once I'd emigrated from theUKand returned without David knowing anything about it. I took a teaching job for three years in a private school inJamaica, and came back after four months. As he was telling me the story I knew none of the details at all, and even at one moment wondered why the story seemed worth the telling, especially when he started to digress, saying one reason why he was so protective of his space was that he felt that since Paris was such a densely populated city, people would have all sorts of ways in which to protect their privacy and announce their individuality. It might be through being very strict with who they gave their mobile number to, or who they would eat with. As for the individuality, fashion and style he suspected was so important inParispartly so that people could distinguish themselves from each other. It mattered little that, in his opinion, many of them dressed all too similarly: the point was that they dressed well to announce themselves as distinct individuals.
David's mention of his flat as an area of privacy for him was the first time he had ever talked about his need to keep the place very much to himself, and so he went on to explain why this happened to be so. A couple of years after I met him in Scotland, where he stayed in a youth hostel in which I was night portering, he was seeing another student at the Paris university where he studied. He had only recently rented the flat he was still in, and, as she was living with her mum and dad, she would usually stay over at his, and was there so often that she had all but moved out of her parents' place. Ariane's mother and father lived in the suburbs, out past Vincennnes, while David's flat was on a street called Boulevard du Templein the 4th arrondissement, and much closer to the university in the 5th.
He didn't mind that she stayed in his flat, but he always felt apprehensive that she would come across a notebook that he had kept since he was sixteen (he would have been twenty one at this time). He supposed he could have locked it up, but there were no drawers in his flat with locks on them, and to go and buy one would be conspicuously to announce that he had something to hide. Instead he hid the journal in a cupboard sandwiched between some music magazines. I asked if it was only one journal: wouldn't he have amassed several over four years? No, he said, because it was only the most pertinent, personal things he would put in there, and so it was only every month or two that he would write up an entry. It was not a proper diary, he insisted, just a notebook, so that the dates he would add himself when he wrote in it.
For the first year they were seeing each other, David felt comfortable with Ariane's presence apart from this detail that made him constantly and very quietly tense, though so subtly that she didn't seem to notice at all. However, during the next six months together, perhaps because she became more familiar around the flat, would rummage around in cupboards looking for things where before she would always ask him in advance, he became warier, more fearful around her, and she started suspecting that he must be seeing someone else, that he was undeniably acting as though he had something to hide.
He started wondering where he could put the journal. He thought of leaving it at his parents' place. But he knew his mother would not countenance him telling her that she mustn't poke around in the things that he had left in what was after all her apartment. Anyway, he didn't feel he ought to hide anything somewhere else: this was his flat and Ariane should respect his privacy: if she were ever to stumble across it this was because she happened to be intruding where she ought not to have been.
Yet he couldn't avoid feeling that at any moment she would find his notebook, and so what he did one day, stupidly, irrationally, was wrap it in several carrier bags, take it outside and put it into a dustbin. Initially he felt relieved he had got rid of it, and then over the next few weeks he became angrier and angrier with Ariane. He now had nothing to hide, but he felt that he had someone to hate, and he treated Ariane so badly over the next three months that she decided to go. He felt relieved initially, and then very guilty, and then resigned as he started once again writing a journal. He started it by exploring his feelings for Ariane: the absurdity of her leaving, and that she would probably never know why.
Now that he was being so open, I found I could ask David questions that would have seemed impossible only an hour or two earlier. Did he still have the newer notebook, I wondered, and wasn't he afraid that the person staying in his flat would find it, or did he, as I suspected, leave it along with many of his records and things at the house in Brittany? He admitted he hadn't taken it anywhere; that the notebook sat in the very place where all those years ago the previous one had been before he threw it out. Wasn't he fearful the person would find it? Not especially, he replied, saying that over the years the neurosis that centred on that notebook had permeated the entire flat, and one reason why he rented it out was to try and eradicate this feeling of invasiveness whenever someone stayed over in his apartment. Over the years I knew there had been other girlfriends, other lovers, and I always wondered, yet never asked, how he coped with them staying in his flat or whether he always stayed over at theirs.
Usually he would stay at theirs. Sometimes they would stay at his, and when they did he would always feel a little anxious when he went to the bathroom or went for a shower, or cooked dinner while she was in the other room. And of course he was no more comfortable with friends around: one reason why he would never allow even good friends like I happened to be to stay over in his flat when he was elsewhere. He said he had no idea what most people do with their most private thoughts, but he kept them in the journal, and he sometimes wondered whether the problem was that he had given these thoughts form. He supposed many people had private thoughts that were so private that they never even became formulated as thoughts, just stray words loosely attached to feelings, and that promptly drifted into oblivion rather than being shaped on a page. Did he ever look at the journal? Generally he said he didn't, but if he were writing a new entry he would look back at earlier ones. He said they embarrassed him when he did so, and if even he was ashamed at looking through his own notebook how would he feel if someone else came across it? He wondered if all our thoughts would be a little like that - that everybody's mind is full of stupidities, failed facts, errors of judgements, incoherent sentences and so on. The point he said is that they are in our minds and quickly leave them, whereas his offerings were on a page and there for years.
I asked whether he ever wrote anything else, apart from his music articles. He said that he never did, and he asked me if I ever kept a journal. I told him I never wrote anything but fiction, never a book review, or a column piece. If I couldn't shape it into fictional form I had no interest in the thought at all. Of course I would write emails, the occasional letter and postcard, but they were without merit, and I would feel no shame about their inadequacies. He asked if I would write a story about what he was telling me. I said he hadn't given me enough yet to shape it into a story, though maybe I could add a few details of my own that would make it pass for the fictional. Can fiction allow for the coincidental, he wondered? I asked whether this was a theoretical question or was he hinting at a detail he hadn't yet given me. Perhaps, he said, it is a bit of both. I supposed that the problem with coincidence is that in life it cannot be premeditated (we are not God) where in fiction (where we can be) it so obviously has been. Sometimes people insist that, since there are so many coincidences in life, why can't there be more in fiction, and when I would teach creative writing classes back inScotland, I would often tell students that they shouldn't rely on coincidence to pass for narrative progression.
Yet I had never felt very happy with the answers I gave, and something in David's story made me think that if he were to offer me a moment of coincidence in this revelation he was divulging then I might just utilise it, even if I knew I would not be doing so on the basis that it came from real life. I said to him that afternoon maybe there are coincidences that can be offered in a story if there is a purpose beyond the manipulation of the reader for doing so. One reason why I would insists students avoid the coincidental was that they used it so easily. One student had his father bump into him in a pub inLondonthough they hadn't seen each other for years. Another wrote a story where the narrator met an ex-girlfriend by chance in a cafe inIstanbul. They insisted that these things happened, so why couldn't they happen in a story too? I said that maybe they could include the events if they also included all the random elements in life that allowed out of this randomness the occasional coincidence. But since they were shaping the story, the happenstance event would stick out. David was in general agreement with my sentiment, but then said that if before he hadn't quite enough to give me a story, maybe when he told me that the person he happened to rent his flat for a night a week to was the very ex-girlfriend from years before, then that would be story enough but too coincidental to utilise.
As he told me this I felt the frisson of what I can only call literature, this hard to place feeling that has nothing to do with the well-plotted and carefully arranged, but the contingency of the creative. Perhaps one reason why I had never felt very satisfied with telling the students coincidences were to be avoided, I said, was that much great work came out of chance. It was simply that the chance such works utilised did not take the easy form of manipulating the story for easy ends, but to produce a work at all. I couldn't deny that each day I would sit at my computer and write that I was looking not to shape a story into a preconceived mould, but to find, in sitting there patiently, just as on other occasions I would sit in cafes, bars, parks and so on, the stimulus to discover the fictional.
David smiled, and wondered, though, whether it was really a coincidence. Melinda would have offered a flat to Ariane, and that was where the coincidence began and ended. When Ariane knew the address she could have turned the apartment down saying that she years before had half-lived in that very flat, but she didn't turn it down. Instead she took it, and for a year had been living in David's apartment one night a week and also the occasional weekend, and all the while without ever meeting the owner. When she first took the apartment he arranged the keys through Melinda, and asked her friend to state exactly what time she would arrive and what time she would leave. It was important after all for him not to know who this person in his flat was, rather like, he supposed, a person having an affair with a woman who didn't want to know anything about her husband.
I asked him how he found out it was Ariane, and he said one day she left a student's essay on his desk, and her name was on it. The following week when she was due to stay, David swapped a shift with a colleague, and, instead of going to work, waited in a cafe opposite the apartment for her to arrive. He wondered if she had left the essay deliberately, as if to end the charade that she was staying in a flat where she didn't know the owner, and this somehow left him feeling justified in spying on her from across the road.
She arrived at eight at night (the time his shift at the hospital on the other side of the city would start), and as he watched her approaching the flat he thought she had changed little since they had parted ten years before. She seemed to move with more authority but also with more heaviness, even though she looked as slim as when they had been together. It was a warm, mid-Spring evening and she was wearing a summer dress cut just above the knee, not dissimilar to ones he would recall her wearing, but the colour was perhaps more subdued. The main difference was the heels she wore: he remembered that she would rarely wear heals, and walked slightly clumsily when she did. That clumsiness had gone.
At that moment, watching her, he felt not only still guilty but also felt regret: he saw someone who had changed little and what changes there were seemed very agreeable. That night he read in the cafe until one in the morning, perhaps hoping that she would go out again, and thinking maybe he would follow her. But he didn't see her leave the flat. Afterwards he took the sleeping bag he'd taken with him, and slept on a bench by the nearby Canal St Martin, waking in time, he assumed, to see her leave in the morning. The cafe that closed at one opened at seven, and he sat on the terrace once more and waited for her to come out. She was again wearing a dress cut above the knee, again of a muted colour (though a different one), and again wore heels. He quickly finished his coffee and croissant, and followed her to the metro entrance, and followed her at a distance of about thirty yards onto the platform and watched her get on the train.
A couple of days later he arranged to meet up with Melinda, and asked her a few questions about this acquaintance of hers to whom he'd rented his flat. She said that she didn't have that much to tell; that they had once shared a bottle of wine one night on a terrace in Nice, and that was the only time the friend had discussed her private life with her. Indeed, it was not that long afterwards that she agreed to take the flat. David asked what they discussed, and she said what women often discuss when they feel complicit with another woman: love, neuroses, complexes. Things they don't expect will be diluted, Melinda said pointedly, by later divulgences to a man. Nevertheless Melinda did say that the woman had been hurt very badly in the distant past, and had been more careful with men ever since. Melinda said she never quite knew why they had parted; that she never knew whether he had cheated on her, got bored, frustrated or felt claustrophobic. At the time Melinda and his lodger had talked, the lodger was single, but they had only chatted briefly ever since, and never again about personal things. David assumed that Ariane had been talking to Melinda about him, that he was the person who had treated Ariane badly, but didn't tell Melinda that, and instead wondered if he should, after years earlier trying to hide the journal from Ariane, leave it in a conspicuous enough place so that she couldn't avoid discovering it.
He smiled at me again as he said this, and I laughed: he was making it increasingly difficult for me to write it as a story, though I couldn't deny I was still fascinated by how it would turn out. If I were to write it, many of the criticisms I would level at students' work I'd have to aim at my own too, and yet I was intrigued and wanted him to continue, and I didn't think I wanted him to do so with the indolent interest of someone obliviously working their way through a page-turner.
David said that he didn't only leave it in a place where she might easily come across it (he left it on his desk under a couple of books), but he also over the next few weeks changed his work shift so that he could watch Ariane arrive at his flat in the evening and leave the next morning. It was on one such evening that Ariane did not stay in the flat after she arrived, but went out, bought some shopping and also stopped for a drink along the road from the apartment, at a cafe on the same side of the road as his place, and opposite from where David said he had sat, read and drank coffee on that first evening, and the cafe he had since made his regular. David had changed quite a lot in the last ten years. When I first met him twelve years earlier he had short, cropped hair, and was clean shaven. Now he was thickly stubbled and with hair almost shoulder-length. He wore baggier clothes and of a duller hue than before, and it would have been understandable if this woman from a decade earlier did not recognize him. He did not at all look bad for his age; just different, and so he believed that he could observe her from across the road without her knowing who it was.
It was true that if I hadn't seen him every summer or so in the intervening years, I also would probably have passed him on the street, sat in a cafe or a restaurant and failed to see that this was someone I had known years before. She would also not expect to see him because wasn't he supposed to be at work at that moment? Yet, equally, I thought, didn't this all sound so fictionally convenient, another opportunity to give a little more twist to the plot?
Did she sit in the cafe for long, I asked. For about an hour he replied, and guess what she was reading, he said, expecting me to say the journal, but for some reason I thought this improbable, and said a copy of one of the magazines that he would occasionally write for. Very good, he replied, happy that I hadn't fallen into the expected narrative trap, and indicated that even if I might end up telling the tale, I would respect, at least, that it possessed a nuance of character. I asked where he slept on these nights, and he said he would sleep on the same bench by the Canal St Martin. It was into the beginning of summer and warm enough to sleep outside even without a sleeping bag, and he said he felt a very intense well-being knowing that he was lying asleep on a park bench while his girlfriend from many years before was sleeping in his flat, and he tried to explain it.
After they split-up he felt very guilty about the times he would suddenly ask to be left alone in the apartment, suddenly anxious that she might come across his journal, and he would all but push her out of his flat and onto the street. He remembered one occasion not long before he put the journal in the bin. It was one evening after dinner and she went in to the sitting room and was looking for a CD. She came very close to where the journal resided and he suddenly said it was best if she left. She asked what was wrong and he said nothing; he needed to be alone. She looked at him with a pain he could still recall, a pain that was not anger but worse: it was inexplicable despair, a look that said I do not know the man I love, but I still love him anyway. After she pulled the door behind her he was simultaneously utterly relieved and equally horrified, and wanted to ask her to come back, but knew that he was happier still to be alone.
He looked momentarily lost as he said this, and then added there was no reason for her still to be taking the flat during the last month or two. Her courses would have finished, and yet Melinda said his lodger wanted to continue staying for a day each week during the summer also. He agreed, and over the next few weeks, right through to the middle of July, each night she would be staying there he watched her arrive, and each week, now, she would sit in the cafe along the road from his for an hour and he would watch her from the cafe opposite, from the very cafe we were then sitting in. Since she would obviously have known all along whose flat she was renting, had she worked out who this man sitting opposite her was by this stage, I asked. Perhaps she knew from the first night that she sat across from him, he said, and perhaps also had found the notebook long before he placed it somewhere easily discoverable. Maybe she had seen the previous notebook also, he surmised, though probably not.
I asked whether he had yet to talk to her, and he shook his head. He said he didn't at that moment feel the need, and suspected she didn't feel the need to do so either. It was as if they had created a beautiful complicity by never sharing the flat at the same time after nightmarishly doing so all those years before. He then asked me if I wanted to go with him to his little house in Brittany, and I looked surprised and he added that he couldn't easily explain why, but his neurotic feelings concerning his personal space had evaporated over the last year. I said I would love to have a few days by the coast, and asked when we could go. He said the following day would be best: later on that particular evening he wanted to watch Ariane arrive, and join her by sitting on the other side of the street. It was about six thirty, and I said I suspected he would want to be alone with her. He smiled, and said that he hoped I wouldn't mind. I thought for a moment while he ordered another coffee. As I left him alone in the cafe waiting for Ariane, I wondered exactly what I would be able to do with his story. Perhaps I would tell it from her point of view.
© Tony McKibbin