Perhaps I should have said something sooner. My partner and I had been together for over two years and with my landlord keen to sell the flat, and she, staying in an apartment with a settee she suspected had tics in it, and cupboards with mice droppings, was keen to escape hers, even if the rent was cheaper than most in the area in which she was living. Let the landlord offer the rent at the present price while adding that you might find rodent poo on your plate when removing it from the cupboard, she said. Let him put in the advert that you will feel an odd and intense itch when you sit down and watch a film and see how much he can rent it for, she added. We were discussing sharing a flat, and I said that the deal she was getting wasn't so bad. She offered the problems with her place as undeniable factual information but her tone also indicated that she wondered if I was trying to suggest she stay where she was so that I could continue living alone. My landlord wasn't throwing me out he only said if I were at any moment to leave, he would put it on the market.
However, when I said this to Gemma she saw in it the chance for us to get a place for ourselves and that was when I proposed her deal wasn't so terrible. She insisted, after the talk of the tics and the droppings, that she could find better. I said it wasn't easy to rent reasonably priced accommodation in the centre of Edinburgh and she said that, as I knew, she liked a challenge. She started looking the very next day and it appeared as though the task would defeat her. After two months she still hadn't found a single property that was both desirable and affordable. We hadn't even gone to look at a flat.
Gemma was strong-willed and I suppose she would call me stubborn. Is this not the same characteristic moving in different directions: one towards constant activity and the other towards what others might see as inertia? Gemma and I were the same age but in her thirty-five years she had lived in nine countries; I had always lived in Scotland. Her father was involved in the diplomatic service and before she was seventeen she had resided in New York, Paris, Mumbai and Santiago; after that she studied in Berlin, and worked in Ireland, Spain, Argentina and Mexico. She was fluent in German, French and Spanish and occasionally mocked me for my linguistic incompetence while also affectionately trying to teach me just a little of the languages she mastered. Yet I think I can say with no immodesty that my mind was more thorough than hers; that I could think through to the bottom of a problem while Gemma often formulated hastily what she needed for action. It is as if she were almost metabolically in a hurry and, on top of that feeling, she would put an idea, finding reason enough to propel herself into purpose. Even her desire to move in with me contained within it the wish to do something over the need to think through whether it would be a sound move. Gemma had never lived anywhere for more than three years since she was a young child and there she was after two keen to move out of her flat when I wondered if another year or so she would want to move to another city, another country. Why this upheaval for potentially such a short period? Why not, she replied, rather than countering my objection with a reason why moving would be a good idea beyond her need to constantly move on.
Gemma's job was better paid than mine but less secure. She worked in psychology research and usually on contracts that lasted no more than three years. This suited her temperament and she saw in it not insecurity but the escape from stultification. I worked as a servitor at the university, and though I was about five points below her on the pay scale, the job was permanent and my rent low. In a world of impermanence, I had found employment that felt safe and was in a flat the landlord would only sell if I wished to move. Gemma was asking me to swap security for insecurity. No, she said, she was asking me to swap predictability for galvanization. She told me this one evening in my flat as we sat in the sitting room on the sofa. She looked at the coffee table in front of us and ran her finger along it, showing dust on her tips and a snail-like trail of shine where her finger had been. It was an argument of sorts and I said if she can find somewhere that appealed, I would move.
It would have been around three months after this conversation she did indeed find a possible flat, centrally located, with a sitting room offering plenty of light courtesy of three large windows. The bedroom was more than adequate, the kitchen compact but spacious enough for a small dining table, and there was even a box room with a window, with Gemma saying that I could use it as my own space, knowing that I might find it took time to adjust to living with someone after years on my own. She offered it facetiously but I took it seriously: I knew that I couldn't share an apartment with anyone unless finding within it a space that was my own.
We arranged to see the place the following day and, sure enough, it looked as perfect as we could hope at a price we could afford. I couldn't offer any possible objection based on the apartment's quality, and said if we could get it that would be great, aware that several others would be keen on it as well. As the estate agent showed us around I asked if there had been much interest thus far. We were the fourth couple to look at the flat, he said, and there were several more viewing it after us. If my face showed mild relief that the place might go to someone else it wouldn't have been for the reasons Gemma may have been looking for, a reluctance to share a place at all, but for another one altogether.
There are places we find ourselves in that create a feeling of deja vu and there is no reason why this shouldn't happen often enough when so many apartments are similar in style and layout. I've often first entered a friend's place in Marchmont or Bruntsfield and wondered if I had been in the flat before, only to realise a couple of features were reminding me of elsewhere. It may have been the alcove in the kitchen, or the table by the window in the living room but soon enough I became aware that this was a flat new to me and that briefest feeling of familiarity faded and the present returned in its singularity. But moving from room to room in the apartment the estate agent was showing us around, I knew I had been there before, around five years earlier, and knew too that it had taken me long enough to get the place out of my mind without returning to it even once during these years, and yet there I was potentially about to move into it permanently. I hoped the flat would go to others, people for whom it remained merely a home and not the most perverse of haunted houses.
While we waited for a reply, I thought inevitably about five years earlier when for around six weeks I went to this flat and stayed the night, making love to a woman who knew our affair could only be a fling and yet reacted to it as if it were a tragedy. She had completed a part-time Master's in the city and was due to return to Argentina just before her visa expired. With its time limit, there was an urgency to our affair, a sexual need that started the moment I arrived through the door each afternoon or evening and ended an hour later when we started cooking together. After the first three weeks, we began venturing out, and I showed her parts of the city she had never visited; initially, we went on foot to the Hermitage in the south of the city, parts of Stockbridge in the north that she was surprised by, including a couple of private gardens whose walls we climbed over as we explored how the other half lived, those who had keys for these entitled spaces. Nobody asked us who we were or why we were there, as though it was so subtly violating a deed that the owners weren't quite sure which law we were breaking as we lay on the grass kissing and caressing each other. We knew of course if we got carried away we would be taken away; that the cops would be called, as though two wrongs added up to a legal right that making love in a private garden would be reason enough for the police to be alerted. But it was as if lying on the freshly cut grass, green blades and tufts sticking to our clothing, that a few pecks on the mouth, and hands caressing lightly each others' knees and thighs, was frisson enough.
We also explored areas beyond walking distance as I persuaded her we could cycle out to places like Portobello and Cramond. She wasn't convinced; hardly anybody she knew cycled in Buenos Aires, she said, and I replied that was hardly an answer to explain why she shouldn't cycle in Edinburgh. A better one would have been if she had never cycled at all but she told me that she learnt as a child and supposed she still knew how. We found a bike on a share group that gave things away and with a little work, pumping the tyres, putting oil on the chain, the bike was functional. She rode it a few times around the park as I jogged alongside her and felt sure within an hour that she could tackle at least a trip to the shops. I expected her to be fearful but her dread of bikes it seemed was more associated with how people might perceive her, and here in Edinburgh there weren't the disdainful glances people would have offered her at home. She was brought up thinking that, apart from kids, only poor people cycled. Comments like this revealed less how much money her parents had and more the expectations that were placed upon her to make her own money or to marry someone who was wealthy. Though she rarely talked about her mother or father, though she hardly talked about her personal life at all, I sensed that while she was saddened by the time limit placed upon her, that she knew she would leave Scotland soon and leave me with it, that she was relieved as well, happy that she could live in the present with the future a limited horizon. When she did think about going back she would feel the ambivalence of wishing to see her family but not wishing for them to see her: it was an ambivalent statement of its own, suggesting that she wished to be back for the food, the affection, the friendships, but not for a broader judgement I felt was part of her culture or her family; or at least her perception of one or the other.
But as I say, she never really talked about it; or rather, she offered comments on it that weren't invites for further discussion but a means to avoid a conversation without refusing to acknowledge it at all. During those six weeks, it often seemed that she was utterly present and not at all there, seeking to find in the moment what she was hiding from herself. It wasn't as though I didn't trust her, that she was hiding things from me, but more that she was protecting herself from thoughts and deeds that she either couldn't explain or believed might have given a useless density and weight to our time together. When we were cycling back from Cramond, passing on a bicycle path near Stockbridge, we stopped off briefly so I could show her an old cemetery. She laughed when I said that, saying aren't all cemeteries old and I supposed I should have described it a little better but she would see for herself. We locked our bike to a railing next to a bench on the cycle path and went through what looked like a large hole in a wall, and we could see a few metres away the Water of Leith. She said it didn't look like a cemetery to her and I said she needed to show patience. We walked a few feet and she almost tripped over a gravestone that was lying flat on its back and saw in front of her another that was leaning half over. She began to see what I meant by an old cemetery and as we kept walking she said she had never seen the dead so neglectfully looked after. Yet she added it somehow made most other cemeteries look like real estate for the deceased. Here she noticed how gravestones were half-hidden amongst trees and bushes, the early June weather making everything appear green and fertile, and the stones overrun by new life.
I was staying over at Gemma's flat when the agent phoned and said the place was ours. Gemma had an ecstatic look on her face as she told me and I had to find a way of matching it with an enthusiasm that wasn't so much feigned as imposed: there were other feelings behind the one that was in some ways very happy that we had managed to rent an apartment that was better than any of the others that she looked at online, places we hadn't even bothered to visit. There we were, on the first attempt, finding exactly what we were looking for. When she said that it was fated, I didn't disagree; even if I found myself thinking more of omens than fates. All that morning and during the celebratory brunch we took at a cafe near where she stayed, not far from the Shore, she talked excitedly about our new place. It was a better location than either of our flats; hers at the bottom of Leith and mine at the top of Easter Road. We would both be much nearer the university and she would only be a few minutes away from the gym and ten minutes away from the swimming pool. I hoped my face and the tone of my voice matched her enthusiasm; it wasn't as though anything that she said wasn't true; wasn't even as if I didn't want to move in with Gemma or that I disliked certain aspects of the flat. Things couldn't be better, yet there was a feeling of quiet dread, a sense that I was caught in a lie that I couldn't quite decide was a trivial non-disclosure or an enormous betrayal. I thought for a moment after lunch as we walked along the footpath by Water of Leith, and came out at Stockbridge, treating ourselves to a late afternoon glass of wine sitting outside in a bistro, that I should tell her that a few years earlier in the flat that we were about to sign a lease on that I had a passionate affair with someone I hardly knew. Yet I thought I wouldn't only hurt her by saying this; there was a chance she wouldn't believe me that I was making it up so that we wouldn't take the flat and wouldn't move in together. It was true that I hadn't mentioned Martha to Gemma at all; one evening shortly after we got together we talked about our past partners and there seemed no reason to bring Martha into the discussion even though the other relationships in my life I discussed. It wasn't as though this affair was unimportant but it did seem more socially negligible than any others. With Martha we didn't have any friends in common; she didn't introduce me to anybody and I didn't introduce her to anybody either. What was the point? We knew the affair would be brief and that this brevity also meant we didn't wish to dilute the intimacy we had created, and the brief time we had to create it, with meeting up with friends. There was no chance any of my friends now would likely bring Martha into the conversation since they had never met her and thus no reason why Gemma should ask me why I hadn't told her about this person when I had discussed my ex-girlfriends. And so there it was, a person who had no reason to intrude on our life, and thus my secret was as safe as any.
However, if the affair was socially irrelevant, I've probably thought more about Martha than anybody else I've seen. She resides much more in the mind's eye than anyone perhaps because I never saw her again after she returned to Argentina, and as far as I know, there are no images of her online. She had no social media profile to access, no images to view, and I never once took a photograph of her either. To do so would have been to push the present into a future that would have indicated a past, a complicated formulation perhaps but one that captured our refusal to live outside the moment we, or more especially she, tried to live in. She wanted to see everything and explore everything she said. During most of her two years in Scotland she had seen almost nothing and so not only did we visit, perhaps oddly, every cemetery in the city (the dead are with us she insisted), but every park and every nearby castle and stately home too. I am not so sure if either of us were that bothered about where we ended up but we wished at least two or three times a week to cycle somewhere. When I think back I wonder how we found the time; she was finishing off her Master's; I was working thirty-five hours a week at the university. Sometimes, too, we would be awake half the night, talking and touching, exploring each other's bodies or investigating each other's thoughts.
Yet while sexually I never sensed any resistance, some subjects could not be touched, occasional areas of experience that couldn't be countenanced. One may have thought this would reside in her childhood, in question about her parents, or her brother and sister, or circumstances at school, but no, I sensed the problems somehow concerned the city I was in and always assumed it was over a love affair she didn't wish to talk about. I supposed it was minor but devastating, the sort of event that years later one can begin to recall with humour but in the immediate past can only be met with tears. I did sometimes wonder if all the places we visited, the stately mansions and the parks and so on, were places that she had been to before, with this lover, and she wished by replicating the experience to dilute their previous hold over her. But there wasn't any sense that she knew Cramond Kirk or Craigmillar Castle before we visited them nor Leith Links or Morningside Park. She hadn't even been to the Shore and was surprised to see a selection of restaurants and coffee shops, bars and cobbled streets. It was lovely she said, as we sat looking out onto the mouth of the Water of Leith, and yet it didn't look like she was looking across the water but at something else that wasn't in my field of vision.
That nobody I knew had met Martha made me think I wasn't betraying Gemma in agreeing to take the apartment. If only one friend of mine had ever visited her flat with me, if there had been any chance that this friend would have come to the place and recalled being there when Martha had rented it, if I had believed there was any complicity possible at Gemma's expense, I would surely have told her that several years earlier I had known the apartment well; that maybe she now wouldn't wish to share it with me. Instead, we signed the lease and moved in, agreeing that since we had never lived together before we should allow ourselves a degree of autonomy in a flat that was big enough for two strangers to live together. Gemma took the large bedroom and I took the small box room, which was attached to the living room and this became my space chiefly as well. It was a room I didn't even know was there when I was seeing Martha I assumed it was little more than a cupboard in which things were stored. I had never been in and, if I recall, it had been locked. Gemma commandeered the bedroom, which she also worked in, and the kitchen, which she enjoyed cooking in. Our policy was that unless it was at night when we shared the double bed in her room, I would knock, and during the day I would do the same if she were in the kitchen. In turn, unless we were in the sitting room in the evening, she would knock, and likewise if I was in the boxroom and hadn't heard her knock on the sitting-room door, she would knock there too.
For a few months, this worked well enough but then a friend who came round one evening said that he felt the apartment looked familiar. I asked him if he was sure, and who had he been visiting. Nobody in particular, he said, but it was one of those friends of a friend scenarios where a few of them were sitting in a pub beer garden nearby a few years ago. It was the beginning of the summer and when they knew the pub was soon to close, and a couple of them proposed going to a cellar bar that was known for its jazz, but often at a certain hour became chiefly a place to continue drinking. Someone, who was working on a post-doc, said they knew there was a party nearby. It was a casual invite from a post-grad and he had said that he would be out with friends but perhaps he could come along later with them if that was okay, if it wasn't too rude to arrive at a party after the pubs and clubs were closing. Not at all came the reply and so there, five of them were, at a party a few years ago in the very flat in which I was now residing.
The friend was round for dinner, a common enough occurrence since Gemma enjoyed cooking and even more if there were people who could admire her food. I obviously was one of those people but I knew she was enthused by those for whom her cooking was only an occasional treat, and so it was that Eddie was invited round and mentioned that he knew the flat. Gemma asked who was living in it at the time. He said he thought it was a couple but it was hard to say. There were maybe fifty people at the party and while now it looked like a roomy apartment, in a gesture towards politeness, but also I believe in an attempt to say why the question was hard to answer, then it seemed chaotically cramped it was hard to know who was hosting the party and who happened to be close to who.
I knew Eddie liked to party and I thought for a moment about the term and what its variations were and how weak it could sound. It wouldn't be enough to say Eddie liked to go to parties nor that he liked to socialise: he liked to party as if in that sentence contraction it captured the enthusiasm he felt towards intermingling with others, often with the aid of alcohol, sometimes drugs and, where possible, sex. He was in his early thirties and still single but the words 'still single' didn't work; it carried connotations of failure while for Eddie remaining single was a purposeful act. I had seen him on nights out leave the pub, club or party with a woman but during the decade I'd known him not once had he introduced anyone to me as his girlfriend. As he talked briefly about knowing the flat, about the wild party, I knew that it would have been while Martha was living here, and knew too that any fear I previously had, about Gemma finding out that I might have been linked to the apartment, now intermingled with a feeling of jealousy that Eddie may have slept with Martha before I did, or that surely someone else had that night. I was keen to know more and equally keen to avoid any further discussion, but unsure whether that reluctance rested chiefly on fear or jealousy. All he added was that he remembered there was a strange moment when someone seemed to collapse and retreated into the box room. Eddie assumed it was drink-related but, after that, the party quickly thinned out and he left about twenty minutes later.
The next time I met up with Eddie, a couple of months after he was invited round for dinner and, almost as soon as we sat down and ordered, I asked him about the time he was in the flat a few years earlier. He looked for a moment as though he couldn't quite recall the discussion over dinner, let alone the party, but then said that he thought I looked momentarily uncomfortable when he had mentioned that he knew the flat. I asked him if he recalled at all who the hosts might have been and he said that he wasn't sure throughout the party but at the end of the evening a young woman appeared to be especially concerned about the person who collapsed, and she was also the one who seemed keen for everyone to leave not long afterwards. He had been of course to parties before that had abruptly ended, usually courtesy of a neighbour's knock on the door or due to a call to the police who would come and insist the music be turned right down or off altogether. The parties ended in a state of irritation but not confusion. This one, he remembered, left everyone a little bewildered: it was odd to end a party because someone had a bit too much to drink. He never found out what happened and didn't think anything more about it until he found himself back in the flat when he came round for dinner.
I asked him if he could describe the person who was trying to get people to leave and he said he could probably describe better the impression she gave rather than the attributes she possessed. He did recall she was physically attractive but there were a few people that night he found appealing and her no more than any of the others. No, what he remembered, though he wouldn't have thought about if I hadn't been quizzing him, was that she seemed constantly concerned. He remembered her asking people if they had a drink, if they wanted to be introduced to anyone, making a cup of coffee for a couple who said they had drunk too much and needed to sober up a bit. She wasn't the life of the party but she may have been its soul, he said, as though reflecting on the notion for the first time and aware that his purpose had often been to be its life.
Perhaps I found this odd not because Eddie would have been anything other than the life of the party; it was that when I knew Martha I sensed she was not looking to be the soul of anything; that she wanted to experience life intensely before leaving the city but I never thought too much about why someone who wanted to do so much during those last weeks hadn't already done them. She would have been in Edinburgh for more than a year and a half before meeting me but weren't most of our experiences new to her? Eddie could see I was preoccupied by something and obviously wondered why I was asking about this person he had no reason to assume I knew. It didn't seem fair to ask him so many questions without answering a little the modestly perplexed look on his face. I told him of the brief affair and that it took place in the very apartment that he had both partied in and dined at, all those years apart.
He expressed surprise that I'd taken the flat with Gemma after having such vivid memories of it with someone else and I said that I assumed the pragmatic would be stronger than the evocative, yet there I was sitting with him discussing this past relationship, and soon I'd be going back to the flat that would be home both to my person and to my memory, to Gemma and to Martha.
Returning that evening, not long after Gemma had got back from work, I noticed that, as we prepared dinner, I was more surreptitious in my gestures and speaking as though my mind was elsewhere. It wasn't as if my mind hadn't often been on Martha during the few months Gemma and I had been living in the flat; it was that at least such thoughts were between me and my conscience. But now I had involved a third party in my thoughts, someone who I may have trusted to keep my secret but who nevertheless might accidentally reveal it to Gemma or someone else. They were no longer my thoughts. A thought aloud can become viral; removed from the quarantine of the mind who knows how it might increase exponentially.
Over the next few weeks, I thought a little about why even though Eddie wasn't a close friend, someone I would see every few months rather than the three or four friends I would see or speak to every few weeks, I told him what I hadn't told any of the others, and it was no more complicated than truth coming out of circumstance. I owed him a rationale for my enquiry and now that it was out in the world it seemed like I was not only hiding my thoughts about Martha from Gemma but also fretting over Eddie now knowing about past events. As Gemma and I ate that evening by the small dining table next to the kitchen window, the same table Martha and I often only breakfasted at as we would usually eat in the dining room next door, she noticed I was preoccupied. It was true that I was eating without the usual enthusiasm Gemma's cooking invoked in me, and the Indian dish she had put together in twenty minutes, using fresh ginger, coriander, cardamom, alongside mushrooms, peppers and a curry paste she had made herself prior, deserved the sort of undivided attention I recall Eddie giving the dish she made when he had been round for dinner. That evening it was homemade pasta with a four-cheese sauce sprinkled with basil and parmesan. A rich dish that was followed by a Tiramisu, with plenty of liquor in it. I'd said to her a few days before Eddie came round that he didn't eat much but when he did he knew how to appreciate food. He was long and thin and people might have wondered where he put it all but most of the time he ate out of necessity and good cuisine was a restaurant treat or a dish cooked up by people he knew. He was a foodie when it came to consumption but not creation. Gemma may have been more the other way round, eating small portions she picked at, undeniably savouring the taste but wary of consuming more than was necessary. As Eddie had eaten that night he must have commented at least six times about how wonderful it all was and I remembered Gemma saying to me after he left that we needed to invite him round again nobody had been more effusive about her cooking, even if others hardly held back their praise.
As we ate together she looked at me with the anxiety of one whose identity resides in the eyes of another, and there I was picking delicately at my food but with none of the discernment Gemma would show when eating carefully and slowly. I didn't tell her that I had met up with Eddie earlier, afraid perhaps that just as my questioning of Eddie led to a confession, being open with Gemma might lead to a further one. I said I was sorry, I wasn't quite as hungry as usual and was trying to savour the food as she so often did. I was very lucky to have so brilliant a cook for a partner. People could have spent half a day on a dish like the one she made in twenty minutes and it wouldn't have been half as good. She took hold of my hand and I felt in her grip anxiety I wasn't sure I had ever noticed before.
A month passed and Gemma said that she wanted to have a proper dinner party. During the six months we had been staying in the flat we had invited various guests but never more than two at a time and Gemma said that we had this big sitting room, a dining table that could seat up to eight, why not have a party we could remember. She invited three other couples and arranged the dinner in a couple of weeks' time. However, during that period, Gemma was passing through George Square at the university and saw Eddie. He asked how she was, commented once again on the dish and dessert she had cooked up that night, and she said without thinking that she was planning a dinner party the following weekend; he must come. When Gemma told me this I was overcome by a feeling of dread that implies not just a fear of the future but a temporal realisation of the future as the past. If deja vu makes us aware of the present that seems to contain an uncanny past and which I felt very briefly, when first looking at the flat before realising I had been here before, then when Gemma announced she had invited Eddie along as well it was though the future had returned to the past to instil in me a feeling that the future would reveal.
I wondered if I should contact Eddie beforehand and tell him that I preferred it if he didn't come, that I was worried that some stray remark might reveal that not only had he been in the flat before Gemma and I had moved in but I had been in it as well. Yet if I had created complicity between Eddie and myself by telling him more than I would have wished, I believed that speaking to him now about turning down Gemma's invite would be a manipulation too far, adding to a world that was taking place behind Gemma's back. Instead, I hoped that for some reason Eddie wouldn't make it; that I knew so social a figure sometimes would cancel since a more exciting proposition had presented itself.
Guests started arriving at 730 and by 8 o'clock everyone was there except Eddie. Mild concern on Gemma's face was met by an equally fretful countenance on my part, even if it was masking relief. But just after 8, I received a text saying he was on his way and would it be very rude if he invited a friend along as well. The text explained it was a friend in need and he didn't want to desert her. I showed it to Gemma and hoped that she would be so irritated by his lateness, and affronted by his cheek, that she would so no, and that would be that. Instead, she said that it seemed he couldn't leave his friend and that we must invite them both; everybody would all just have to squeeze up. I momentarily wondered if there were enough chairs and knew that there would be: six in the sitting room, three around the kitchen table and the one next to my desk in the box room. Unfortunately, we would manage.
Eddie and Charlotte arrived at 815 just as the dish was being served up and he apologised profusely, handed me a bottle of wine and Gemma a bouquet of flowers that he insisted putting into a vase himself since Gemma was so busy, and Charlotte apologised for showing up but said that Eddie insisted and didn't want to leave her alone. It transpired that Charlotte had been made redundant that day and when I asked if she wanted us to keep it a secret over dinner, she said not at all that her employer had treated her badly; the more that knew about it the better. Over the starter, when Eddie said that Charlotte had lost her job, others tentatively asked her how she felt and she said three large glasses of wine in a bar earlier helped as an anaesthetic, before adding that she should have left the job months ago. It wasn't just the long hours working as a secretary at a small letting agency; it was that those long hours turned into late ones, and who was also working late: the boss with tentacles for hands, Handy Andy, a couple of the others had nicknamed him. A married man with a wife who didn't understand him and no wonder since he was never home to communicate with her, Charlotte added. I sensed as she talked a person who couldn't keep her mouth shut; if Eddie had said anything to her about the flat, about what I'd told him when we last talked, she would bring it up without compunction. I couldn't see why Eddie would have mentioned it to her; it was an anecdote so slender that it was unlikely to have come into the conversation without a prompt, without it coinciding with a pertinent purpose. Yet wasn't going to the flat for a dinner party reason enough; couldn't he have said to her that he wouldn't say anything exposing since I'd told him that I was living in the very flat that I'd years earlier had an affair in; a flat in which Eddie had partied in years before and where my lover had been the host?
Maybe my worries seemed exaggerated and, sure enough, it appeared that Charlotte and Eddie didn't say anything that need cause me embarrassment. People chatted in small convivial groups for most of the evening, Charlotte proved helpful and polite despite her forthrightness, helped Charlotte serve up the main course and dessert, and also insisted in washing the dishes while Gemma dried and put everything away. It was usually my job but on dinner party evenings she gave me the night off, perhaps worried that since I liked to get merry in company I wasn't the best person to wash or dry dishes at the end of the evening, especially as the plates and glasses we used on such occasions were made of bone china and crystal, items handed down to her from her grandmother. Charlotte I noticed had sipped on just the one glass all evening, as though her purpose was to sober up rather than further her inebriation. Over dessert, she had a black coffee while Eddie and I, and a couple of the others, had an Irish coffee I put together and which added nothing to sobriety.
The next day I was relieved the evening had been a success and while I said this to Gemma as though I was praising a night based on good conversation, wonderful food and an ambient atmosphere (a music teacher friend had put together the evening's playlist) I was most especially noting to myself that my secret was safe after its most fraught test.
Or was it? Over the next few days, Gemma appeared distant and dismissive, the latter a trait not unheard of but the former very rare especially extended over more than a twenty-four-hour period. By the middle of the week, she still hadn't said much more to me than what was necessary for flat-share communication and when I asked her what was wrong she said it was nothing. I knew that I'd been quite drunk at the dinner party but my inebriation didn't seem to bother anybody else and I was far from the drunkest that evening. I suspected that somehow Gemma had heard about Martha and I didn't know whether I should ask her directly or speak to Eddie, to find out if he had said anything to Gemma or if he had said anything to Charlotte who may have said something to Gemma. After all, they were in the kitchen for half an hour doing the dishes; what might have been said?
I didn't need to contact Eddie; Gemma had texted to say she had taken the day off work and wouldn't be at the flat when I returned from my shift. Returning to the apartment, I saw her stuff packed up and a couple of delivery men taking a dozen boxes and a few other items that were in the hall. I went into the bedroom and none of her things was there; I went into the kitchen the plates and glasses that we had used the week before were gone. I waited for another text, but none arrived and the next day when I texted and tried to phone her the number was blocked. I could have shown up at her work but that would have been tantamount to harassment. She left and my immediate problem was wondering how I could afford the rent. I found myself annoyed with her and annoyed with myself; shouldn't I have stayed in my old flat or been open to her about my reluctance to move into this one? I didn't wish to share and would struggle to pay the rent on my own but worked out with five overtime shifts a month I could cover the difference while looking for a cheaper place for one, or finding a flatmate I could share with.
Over the next year, I stayed in the flat, paid the rent and found that I could think whatever thought I liked in the place. After a month or two after she left, I thought little of Gemma and didn't feel especially guilty about keeping a secret from her. I might even have been wishing a problem would arise rather than telling her directly. Could I have lived for years with the prospect of such a secret constantly threatening to be revealed, especially since Gemma had said not that long after we moved in that perhaps at some stage we would buy the flat?
During that time I saw Eddie on a couple of occasions and of course asked him if he said anything to Charlotte which led her to speak to Gemma. He said he didn't recall but he may well have done that night before they arrived at the flat. He was very drunk that evening he said, even before arriving at the apartment, and who knows what he might have been divulged. He didn't offer it with the profuse apologies I might have expected and instead looked like he may have thought he was doing me a favour. He reckoned Gemma and I weren't at all suited and said it in such a way, and appeared so lacking in contrition, that I thought for a moment that they might have slept together. Before Gemma and I parted would have been unlikely, and afterwards somehow implausible, but I felt I briefly imagined it just as I had very briefly wondered if Eddie had slept with Martha. However, while imagining Eddie in bed with Gemma caused me no consternation, I recalled that the possibility Eddie had slept with Martha did. Had he slept with both of them; and was he capable of telling uselessly blunt truths and also self-protective lies? My conclusion was that he hadn't slept with Martha, probably hadn't been to be bed with Gemma, but that any friendship that could allow for such speculation on my part wasn't much of a friendship anyway. We met up once again several months later, near the university, and went for a coffee, but I sensed, for both of us, that if we had arranged it for another day one of us would have cancelled. I haven't seen him since, though I wouldn't be surprised if I did, and expected also to see Gemma since her post-doc research had another year to run. But I didn't see her either.
Instead, I saw Martha, or rather she saw me. I didn't recognise her instantly not because she had changed, though she had a little, but because why would I expect to see her, while I suppose she wasn't too surprised to see me. I was working at the reception in one of the social science buildings and she said that she had seen me there a couple of days earlier but didn't say anything. As we talked for ten minutes with nobody coming to the desk asking for help, I said why didn't she come up to the desk before; heck why hadn't she told me she would be back in Edinburgh? She supposed it might be awkward; that I might have been annoyed. After she left, she knew I had no way of contacting her while she could have contacted me easily enough: she had my address, she knew where I worked. I was about to say she no longer had my address but for some reason I kept this to myself as she asked if I would like to meet for a drink after I finished. I added that it might have to be for food as well; I was finishing in an hour and was already getting hungry.
We ate at a diner near the university and also now much nearer to my flat and though I had no deliberate intention of trying once again to start our affair, and wasn't under the assumption that Martha was necessarily interested in doing so, I said, after we had eaten and the diner was about to close, that we could have a tea at mine. We had been talking about her decision to return to Edinburgh, that applying for a PhD wasn't so well planned out but that she managed to find funding for research on an extension of her Master's project. Her Master's was in Scottish literature, and she had put together a project on existentialism in Scottish fiction: Kelman, Trocchi and Spark, seeing in the former two an atheistic existentialism and in Spark a more religiously inclined one. They were writers I knew well and in a couple of instances liked. When we prepared to leave, I told Martha I had moved and was very close to the university now and, as we walked across the road, down a side street, and found ourselves in front of a small square, she looked at me as though I were joking, and then a moment later smiled again as we approached the main door of the block. As I turned the key she knew I wasn't joking but assumed no more than a coincidence: that I was living in the same block in which she had lived. But no, as we went up the stairs to the top floor and I turned the key she said that it was as though two temporalities were collapsing; that she might now be dreaming.
But we entered the flat and it was all very real, though the walls were now a different colour, the kitchen fresher than she remembered it. She appeared happy to be there again as she wandered through the flat and then, after entering the sitting room and standing outside the box room, she suddenly burst into tears. For a couple of minutes, she couldn't stop sobbing and I stood fifteen feet away from her, standing by the sitting-room door, unsure whether I should move towards her or retreat further. I slowly moved in her direction and held her hand, letting the tension pass from her body to my own.
After a few minutes, we went into the kitchen, sat at the table by the window watching the last of the daylight fade. Neither of us said anything for a while before she said that it was so odd to see the box room occupied. Even after Gemma moved out, I often slept there and usually worked in there, fiddling away on poems I never intended to try and publish but fascinated by doing things with words. It was like playing scrabble with my feelings, trying to find the right word for what was passing through my body, and then the right line and if possible the right stanza. I said this to Martha and she said she never knew I wrote poetry. I told her nobody did and that maybe I wouldn't have told her either if she hadn't seen a notepad open on the desk, a poem in mid-composition. She said she had indeed noticed it but had to admit she paid it little attention because of another thought going through her mind, though she was pleased I told her about it; that telling her I wrote poetry meant something to her. But the reason she hadn't dwelt upon the notepad was that she was dwelling on a feeling from years earlier, from before I met her and about someone whom she had seen die.
He was not a lover she said, but a flatmate, a man her own age who she had lived with during the first year of her Master's and one reason why she moved to working on it part-time. After about 7 months of them sharing the flat he became ill, and for several months she lived with him and looked after him until the final weeks of his life, when he was taken into hospital. At first, it was a few dizzy spells, then he collapsed at a party, and after that he became often confused and disoriented. He died, she said, not long before she met me and, after he passed away, she locked the door of the box room and never went in it again. Before doing so she cleared out his things, giving much of the stuff to charity shops and a few items to his parents, whose illness he kept from them until he entered hospital. They were from Germany and flew over to be with him during his last weeks, and left a few days after the funeral. Even in their grief, they seemed like cold people and she supposed that he would have preferred to die without their presence at his bedside. Let them come to his graveside, he occasionally said: he'd no longer be there. He had no brothers and sisters and they probably shouldn't even have had him. There were friends but no one he felt close to and no one he wished to burden. She said this to me making clear that he relied upon her but presented it as though she didn't do anything more than contingency demanded. She was his flatmate, he was alone and she was there.
She met me a couple of months after he died, she said, but of course, she never talked to me about it; perhaps because she didn't want to burden me as she had been burdened; perhaps she wanted to forget death, despite the cemetery visits, and live a little; a common enough saying I suppose but how many people have a sense of it, how many have to witness death to find it? That was my own formulation and she may not even have used the term live a little at all but that is indeed what she and I did for the remaining month and a half she lived in the city.
Could we live a little more, we might have wondered, but that night it was as if we were with the dead. Martha stayed over but we didn't go to sleep till after dawn, talking about many of the things that went unsaid as actions that had replaced words became words replacing deeds. When we finally went to bed, I gave her the bedroom while I slept in the very box room that another man a few years earlier was in the process of dying in. I slept in the bed I'd been sleeping in for many months. Yet was it now the same bed? Did it feel different since I knew now that a young man whose name I didn't know was very ill in this room, or that next door was a young woman who had returned as if herself from the dead?
I also found myself thinking that it was odd I hadn't seen Gemma at all since she moved out, hadn't once seen her around the city, which wasn't improbable, but that I hadn't seen her around the university either, which seemed unlikely. She would be finishing her research and perhaps soon too to be moving to another city, another country, and I had sometimes over the last year tried to convince myself that Gemma would have moved on anyway; that given her upbringing, her skill with languages and the nature of her work, she would have left me. I couldn't lay claim to innocence let alone self-pity, though I think she must have sensed long before Charlotte's assumed revelation that there was something untoward, and that while she may have assumed it lay in me, it must have been terrible to discover that it lay also in the very walls of the building that she tried to make a home within.
And yet didn't the walls keep a secret from me too; didn't I spend many a night in the flat with Martha years earlier and feel that there was an enigma I couldn't quite comprehend? I also would have assumed it was in Martha but wouldn't have expected it to lie inside the four walls of the apartment, and certainly wouldn't have expected years later to be lying in the bed of the man behind that quiet, behind Martha's need constantly for us to explore each other's bodies as well as the crooks and crannies of the city. To think of those memories, of the pleasures of the flesh, and the haunting of the graveyards, made time and space seem all very vague and indeterminate but also infinite and firm.
© Tony McKibbin