One evening I went from the desk in the bedroom to the kitchen to make some tea. It was around half seven, mid-September, and while the light was fading I could see my way around the kitchen without turning the light on. The flat across from me, across the garden space in between, was nevertheless brightly lit by a naked bulb in the centre of the room, and standing near it was a woman in her bra and jeans about to put on her blouse. This wasn't an uncommon sight since I had moved into this top-floor flat six months earlier: the flats across from me were around a hundred yards away, and it was rare for people to close their curtains or perhaps to have curtains at all. Yet this woman seemed to linger longer than usual near the window, seemed in two minds about whether to put the blouse on or not, as though she wished to be observed by a random stranger that I happened to be, perhaps that others happened to be as well. Was this the first time that she had stood near the window half-dressed; was I alone in witnessing her?
I didn't think too much about it for a few days. I was making up a website for an acquaintance and though initially, it looked like a simple project, I couldn't seem to sort out the PDFs. There were also a few hundred articles and short stories I needed to transfer from his old site to the new one: it was often a chore but in other ways exciting. Frequently the websites I design are for businesses, but this one appeared a labour of love. I gave it some love back, and wanted very much to make it as good as I could manage; after the first afternoon working on it I was determined to have it ready in under a week. All of this work was done in the back bedroom, with the best internet signal: perhaps had I worked in the kitchen on a few occasions I would have copy and pasted the wrong articles as I became distracted by the woman across the way, using the work on the website as an excuse to sit by the window and wait for her to appear. I had assumed it would take that degree of dedication; that for no more than a minute a day would she be exposing herself to strangers, obliviously getting dressed or undressed without caring too much who happened to be looking. One of those moments arrived a couple of days after I had completed the website. I was sitting in the kitchen reading a lengthy article that I had downloaded from the other room when I looked up and saw from the same window what I assumed was the same woman removing her dress. Yet she appeared to be doing so more slowly than necessity demanded: she seemed to be doing this quite deliberately for the purposes of an onlooker. If this were so the most likely onlooker would be me. I had been to the neighbour's flat when there had been a leaky roof and the only window that faced out onto the other side was their bathroom window. The other windows faced onto the street. The only other windows facing this way would be the downstairs' neighbour.
Over the next few weeks, her semi-nude appearance became a regular occurrence. Usually around seven-thirty while I was having dinner, the woman across the way would come into the room fully dressed, strip down to her underwear, move around the room for a minute or so wearing nothing else, and then put on other clothes as if to go out. I still didn't know for sure whether this was for my pleasure, for someone else's, or whether she happened merely to be getting dressed. At no point did she acknowledge me sitting looking in her direction, even though had she waved I could easily have noticed it. Yet equally the distance was such that I couldn't say I would recognize her were I to see her on the street. During these few weeks, I would be walking along the road that her front door led out onto and wondered if I might see her. I knew she was of moderate height, with short dark hair, perhaps the length of a bob, and with pale skin and a slim frame. I tried to see in women who matched this description someone who might also be happy to exhibit themselves to strangers and intuitively sensed that this person at the same time would be shy. I supposed she was in her twenties but it was not impossible that she may have been older. Yet there were in her movements gestures that would appear immature in a woman of older years, or perhaps immaturity would not have been the right word: that the manner in which she moved around her room indicated someone who possessed enthusiasm for life, that worn phrase that nevertheless has perceptual reality. Did I assume that only women in their twenties had this gaiety and was I assuming that after this age it turned into poise, self-sacrifice or despondency - were these the three categories I was putting women of my own age into? Was I a man of thirty-six who had been responsible for contributing to putting women into these categories? I was a father of an estranged child living in Newcastle, whose mother I had briefly been seeing in my mid-twenties; I was a man who had three years ago broken up with a woman I had been seeing for several years, who I had left for a woman who enjoyed my company as an occasional lover but wished to prioritise her career. Were these examples of the self-sacrificing (I know that Carol really did dedicate her life to her son), the despondent (I left Jean knowing that she wished for us to build a life together and with her believing that was exactly what we had been doing), and the poised (Carmen left with the certitude of someone who knew where she wanted to be and a better man than I was would be accompanying her if she were to be accompanied at all)?
But to what category would I put the woman in from across the way? I remember Jean saying to me once that I needed to have a category for everything, that I would put my music for example not only in alphabetical order but also into different genres and decades. Once I'd found The Divine Comedy under D in the 70s glam rock section and offered a half-serious sigh of exasperation when I found it there. She suggested the sigh of exasperation should be hers; that I couldn't let things be. She may have expected a future together and yet never did move into tyhe same flat, which was Jean's decision as much as mine. She wanted to live with a man who wouldn't insist that everything had its place - anyone who did that would insist that she would have a place too. For a long time, we could banter back and forth about things like this, but eventually (instead of arriving at compromise) the banter disintegrated into bickering, and the ability to disagree with humour becomes a quiet animosity, a sense that each person was trying to jostle the other into a personality that wouldn't quite fit. I still feel I didn't really cheat on her; I left her as one escapes a prison, with Carmen the getaway driver. It gave nobility to my actions that they didn't deserve, but by the time my conscience had caught up with me, Carmen was no longer around. After all, why would someone who is implicated in the wrongness of your deed be inclined to help you face the error of it since it is their error also? No, better to bury one's head in the bedsheets that one shares with the fellow guilty, which in my case only lasted a few months. I now feel relieved that it hadn't gone on longer - imagine twenty-five years with someone who wouldn't quite allow you to be the self that needs to face its wrongdoing because that is the face that wanted you to leave the other person in the first instance?
For the last two years, I have lived alone, moving into the present flat a few months ago as if to assert that solitude. The previous flat had two bedrooms and over the years I had sometimes shared with a flatmate when the bank account was low, and on other occasions it wasn't too discomforting if Jean, for example, stayed over for a few of days: there was always enough space as I would use the spare bedroom as my office and disappear into it and leave Jean to do what she liked in the rest of the flat as long as she didn't disturb my record collection or put the mugs away on the wrong shelf. I had bought a two-bedroom flat with my son in mind, but he came to visit twice and never again. The move to a one-bedroom flat seemed to indicate a need for solitude that took brick form.
Part of this desire to live alone I now often think rests on this need to categorize, to give myself the time and space to reflect on how things are from an aloof perspective, perhaps the consequence of thinking too little in my younger years and bringing a son into the world who has hardly any interest in seeing me because I had almost no interest in seeing him during the first four years of his life. It is, of course, another thing I often feel guilty about, as though I need to be alone partly so that I won't do any further harm to others.
And so I return to my question, in what category would I put this woman I was beginning to see more often than anybody else: someone whose age I couldn't guess, whose eyes I couldn't see, whose voice I had never heard. She seemed neither self-sacrificing, despondent or poised, but then what was she? As I would see on the street various women who I believed may have been her, watching in their gestures a trace of those I had seen at a distance of more than a hundred yards. I decided that the body language indicated the insouciant, someone oblivious of their appeal on the one hand but well-aware of how to use it on the other. I cannot easily explain this paradox except to say that I recall Carmen announcing that when she was younger she would sometimes forget that her attraction to men stretched beyond the immediacy of her intentions and extended to the further reaches of their fantasies. I told her it was nicely put but I didn't quite know what she meant. She added that while she knew precisely what effect she wanted to achieve when she would go on a date, out to a club or to a party, she didn't think about the effect when she popped out to buy milk or bread. What she saw when she looked in the mirror after waking up was a disheveled disaster, a bag-eyed wreck determined to negotiate the perils of people's eyes for the purposes of picking up some shopping. But who knows what she looked like to those she would see during her mission. She wouldn't have been projecting her beauty but that didn't mean it was absent. Carmen presented this to me less with the arrogance of the beautiful than with the hindsight of the wise: she was no longer that oblivious young beauty, she said. I suggested maybe she was now being oblivious in a different way: that just as she saw the person going to buy groceries as less beautiful as the woman dressed up to go out clubbing, so someone might see that her present self was as beautiful as her past self; that she was again unable to see the effect she was producing.
I said this to Carmen one evening about a month after I had left Jean. We were having dinner at her flat. She smiled saying that was very kind of me to say it; that if she was going to be corrected, it was always nice if there was a compliment attached. She kissed me saying I was nevertheless wrong and the food was left to go cold on the plate as we moved towards the bedroom. A few months later a similar remark would leave the food going cold on the plate but Carmen and I wouldn't be moving any longer towards the bed - she would be asking me abruptly to leave. The final argument was at my place and she walked out insisting that she wouldn't return. It was a discussion over a popular feminist movement of the moment that seemed to be scoring points rather than winning deep victories, and we disagreed on the tactics of some of the women, and the role of the press. She departed in anger and when I phoned her the next day in sorrow she said that there was nothing more to say. She wouldn't want to be with a man who wouldn't defend her rights. I protested for a couple of minutes but she said that she didn't have her headphones with her and didn't want her brain fried speaking for ages with the phone next to her ear. I sent a few texts after that but never got a reply. Every time I see another case in the press about female harassment I think about Carmen and how I screwed up. But I also think I would have been acting out of character to have responded any other way. I reminded myself of one of these celebrity men and his joke about a man whose girlfriend says to him that he isn't like he used to be, and he replies that he couldn't have kept that act up forever. It was a horrible joke but maybe truer in many instances than we would wish to believe, but I knew that I couldn't have pretended to agree with Carmen in what would have been a milder, less cruel version of the joke. Many a husband, of course, humours their wife and vice versa, and perhaps many a good marriage survives on this basis, but therein for me would have lain a solitude far greater than that of looking out of my kitchen window at a woman across the garden.
Over the next couple of months, it became a mild diversion to my evening as I would watch her several nights a week turn the bedroom light on as she entered the room, start to remove what I presumed were her day clothes, and move into either more comfortable material for the evening or get dressed to go out or to work. Sometimes she wouldn't be changing out of clothes but coming out of the shower with a towel around her body and occasionally around her head, moving jauntily around the room as if listening to music. On occasion, she would come into the room and seem to remove her day clothes, strip down to bra and panties, and put on her pyjamas. I didn't know for sure whether any or all of these displays of flesh were deliberately not so much for me, as for the someone who happened to live in the building opposite and by chance was me. It wasn't that I was the recipient of this display (she had no idea who I was), but it wasn't even as if I could say with any certainty that the stranger across the way who I happened to be was the target either. It could have been for someone in the flat below; it could have been for no one at all: that she was oblivious about others and saw no reason to close the curtains, lower the lights or get dressed in the bathroom. Maybe it was for a flatmate that she would go from the bathroom to the bedroom as skimpily clad as she could manage. The three most plausible observers she could have in mind were me (but not I), the person in the flat directly below, or a flatmate.
And of course, I would wonder who she wasn't. As I picked up items from various stores on the main street that would have been the road from where her front door would be, so I thought about all the people who she was unlikely to have been. I ruled out all women over thirty-five; all women with very light hair, all women who were heavily framed or moved cumbersomely along the street. For some reason, however, I ruled out anybody who was under about twenty-five as well. I decided there was a perversity to this woman that youthfulness couldn't quite offer. But that could have been my relative perverseness speaking: that I couldn't quite countenance that my voyeurism would entertain ogling a woman so young. She should be at least a little close to my age.
This still left a broad number of possible candidates and I found myself feeling a bit like the forlorn, rebuffed lover who sees his ex in the vague figure of numerous others. Someone would be standing in the queue at the supermarket and under the strip lights I would see someone turn round and insist this couldn't be her. Not because she couldn't have been; no one in such clarity could match the vagueness of my imaginings, just as no one, when they turn, could have been the lovelorn's former partner. If someone had turned around and said that she recognized me, that I was the man who would watch her from the building across the garden, I would have been horrified, exposed by more than the harsh light of the supermarket, and instead by the idea that I could be so clearly seen seeing.
I also started to take notice of my downstairs neighbour, unaware of course whether he was the person to whom she may have been performing, and equally couldn't tell if he, like me, would eat dinner alone and, unlike me, look at her from a thirty-degree low angle that would have made his viewpoint more cinematic than mine, though less revealing perspective. When I would sometimes see him I would say hello and look for a trace in his face of recognition: as if we were the only two viewers to an exclusive show, the only two people who could talk to each other about what we had seen and how much of it was for our entertainment. One evening he gave me this opportunity, but I resisted it. We had both arrived home at the same time and as I held the door open for him as he wheeled his bike in, he said he felt it was a bit of an imposition people like himself parking a bike in the stairwell. A good idea, he proposed, was asking others in the stairwell who owned bikes if they would contribute to buying a shelter that could be placed out in the garden at the back. The cheapest one he could find was around 700 and took up to six bikes. There were usually about five bikes in the stairwell, I'd been considering buying a bike since moving in but had been put off by the clutter at the bottom of the stairs. I told him if he could find four other contributors apart from himself, I would chip in too. I gave him a business card, and he said he'd email that evening so I would have his details too.
He was in his late twenties, clearly fit since he worked at Queen Margaret Campus, five miles from the flat. He would cycle there and back each day, he said, more with a sense of exasperation than aggrandizement. I suppose he would have liked to be working nearer the city centre. He taught amongst other things authentic movement he said, with a look on his face that suggested if we ever had the chance to sit down and discuss it he would go into the detail required that a five minute stand up chat couldn't justify. The only similarity with his previous employment was that it happened to be out in Musselburgh. Work that he had done for a couple of years before getting this one. In each instance, in commenting on the cycling and on the job, he did so without much enthusiasm, but nevertheless with an awareness of his own good fortune and applied will, yet a will that he didn't want to talk up to anyone else. He seemed to me to have the measure of things, the sort of person who wouldn't devote hours of his time to looking out the window, nor to musing over the motives and half-hidden thoughts of someone he met on the stairwell. My name is Jim, he said, shaking my hand as I went up the stairs leaving him to lock up his bike.
Over the next few days, as I would look at the woman across the way, I had the idea that she and Jim would make a very good couple. This was based so tenuously on the briefest of meetings with Jim, and the vaguest of encounters with the young woman, but my sense of their appropriateness felt a bit like watching a film that crosscuts between two people on the street, knowing they are likely to end up together. Of course, in the film, they are stars, but at the same time a casting director had to work out which stars would convince us that we could see them as a couple. This is why we have the problem of miscasting: two people might be big stars but we can't see them sharing the same screen space, and thus can't easily see them sharing the same bed. I could see my couple in bed together, cycling around the city, going for dinner in a restaurant by the shore, and catching a film at the Cameo. Yet I could not see Jim sitting over dinner looking up at the window above and watching her undress.
A couple of weeks after the stairwell moment with Jim, I bought myself a bike and the first thing I did was exhaust myself on it. I cycled out to where my parents live in Musselburgh, not too far in fact from the Queen Margaret Campus where Jim worked. Perhaps I wanted to show that I was as fit as he was, even if for a day, or perhaps I preferred the idea of cycling to my parents' house instead of getting the bus. It was Sunday morning, the weather suggested sunshine with the odd cloud right through to the evening. I phoned my mother and said I would come for Sunday lunch if they didn't have anyone else around. (Often they would invite another couple over, have lunch and play cards into the early evening.) We will be alone she insisted; it would be lovely to see you. I sensed in her voice mild irritation but couldn't work out whether it was that I hadn't been in contact for a few weeks, had phoned on the day to say that I was coming, or might have to cancel the friends' visit because she knew when I came I would always want to see them alone. Since breaking up with Jean I didn't really like being around their friends, who would ask me intrusive questions about my single status, or even, once or twice, when I had last seen my son. I added, by way of explanation for the short notice, that I had bought a bike the previous day, the weather was pleasant. It would be nice to cycle out and see them.
As I took a route I would have assumed was similar to Jim's, by the Commonwealth Pool, down along the Innocent Railway, into Portobello and then along to Musselburgh, I found my legs more tired than I would have liked. I couldn't imagine myself travelling there and back every day, and doing a day's work in between, but then this gave me something to aspire to. Even if I could get to Musselburgh and back in one day I would have proved myself capable of at least emulating a much fitter person, however briefly. I'd said to my parents I would be there by midday but didn't arrive until quarter past. They looked a little worried when they saw me. as though their son hadn't grown up one bit and remained the 11-year-old they would fret over when he was out with his friends. Yet as they observed me getting off the bike the look was closer to that of concerned doctors (which they both still were, though now working part-time in the practice they owned) wondering if a patient has over-exerted himself.
Over a pleasant lunch where the conversation remained impersonal we discussed politics. It was my father's favourite subject even if he never had a particular party preference - as if nobody was to the left or to the right enough for him to admire their convictions. My mother, who seemed to have a memory of all her patients, talked about one who she saw in the street the previous day and who looked as well as they ever did, even if nobody visited her more often with minor ailments. I was happy to be home. And the house was home: a four-bedroom abode near enough to my parents' practice so that a five-minute stroll would get them to work. My sister and I had had a room to ourselves on the third floor, in the converted attic, along with a bathroom in between, while my parents' en suite bedroom and their studies was on the first. My sister, five years older than me, went off to university at eighteen and so from thirteen I felt like I was living alone. I would come down to ransack the fridge, make some toast, and then disappear back up to the top of the house and I sometimes think my desire to live alone again on the top floor is a nostalgia for my teen years. When my parents weren't working they were often travelling or traipsing through the countryside (they were keen ornithologists), and from sixteen to eighteen I would have a series of short term girlfriends with whom I could spend many hours lying in bed, listening to anything from Nirvana to the Cure; anything that would seem to give our lives the meaninglessness we were searching for.
I sat in my room for half an hour after lunch, looking through some records I would never now listen to, seeing the posters on the wall of bands I would still play on my record player, and rummaged through my toy box, finding amongst the numerous presents I received over the years a pair of binoculars that were more for effect than for effectiveness. Nevertheless, I thought they would probably be strong enough to see more clearly the woman across the way, and went downstairs with them. It was now late October, but the weather was just warm enough for my parents to take their early afternoon coffee out into the garden, and that is where I found them. The leaves on the trees were a saddening gold mingling with vigorous green. On the ground were the forlorn leaves, frangible and browning. For a moment I looked at the ground and then at my parents and saw the frangible in them too. They saw the binoculars, laughed, saying that I wouldn't see very far with them: they had numerous better pairs inside. After we had coffee my father went upstairs, took a pair from the study I heard him rummaging around in as I waited at the bottom of the stairs, and came back with them. I expected him to ask me what I need them for, as we frequently assume the awkward question when we know we would have to offer an awkward reply, but no inquiry was forthcoming. I was relieved, saying I would seem them very soon, offering it with a conviction usually missing when we parted, and I thought again of the leaves on the ground.
Cycling back in the late afternoon before the light faded, I recalled that as a teenager I would lie in bed on my own or with a girlfriend and feel as though the rest of the world didn't exist. Now I was twenty years older and the rest of the world existed but I wasn't sure if my own life happened to do so. There I was cycling home with Jack in my mind as I wondered how much more quickly he would have got from Musselburgh to the city centre, and of the woman who soon I would be able to identify with the sort of accuracy that would mean I need no longer speculate when walking along the nearby streets. That shift from speculation to visual revelation wouldn't add much to my life, I supposed, but it might make me understand better the lives of others. When I arrived back I pushed the bike into the stairwell, saw there was little space below the stairs, but found enough room to push it along the narrow corridor that led to the garden. I had noticed Jack's bike wasn't there. After locking it to a lead pipe, I walked a few yards, looked over the low wall that led into the main garden that separated my block of flats from the ones across the way, and could see nothing but a light on in the room that I would soon be staring into with the aid of binoculars. As I looked up from this impossible angle, I wondered how possible Jack's was.
That evening I had no need for the binoculars. There was no light in the woman's room, nor the next night, nor the night after that. I also noticed that Jack's bike wasn't in the stairwell in the evenings either. Perhaps he had locked it by the main road where there were various bike stands, though they were usually all occupied, and I'd heard it was always a risk leaving a bike so exposed anywhere in the city. It had been reassuring each evening when I would often pop along to the supermarket around the corner and see his bike at the bottom of the stairs, and it was, after all, that daily sighting which convinced me to buy one of my own. I had a vague feeling of loss: I had no woman to look at and Jack's absent bike oddly disturbed me. I wondered if they had gone off on a cycling trip together, Jack and the woman, in one of those far-fetched hypotheses whose causal link is nothing more than one's own imagination: they both had a place in my mind but there was nothing at all indicating they knew each other. If he knew her because he had seen her at a thirty-degree angle then I had first rights there. My thoughts were silly and solitary, but then weren't all thoughts solitary? I realised that they weren't. Many of them are not hypothetical but practical: things we must plan, actions we must execute. And there I was thinking of other people I didn't even know, and even worse, imagining them together.
At the weekend Jack's bike was back in the stairwell, crunched up against a number of others, allowing space for me to get my bike in and out from the garden. I hadn't used it during the week: my legs were still sapped for a few days after my trip out of town. On Monday evening I noticed a light on in the woman's room, and could see her going in and out, My cooker light was on, I was working offline on the computer but otherwise, the room was in darkness. Would she see me looking across with binoculars? I closed the computer, turned the cooker light off, went into the sitting room and found them. I realised as I did so that this was the first time that what I was doing was voyeuristic. Up until that moment, I could claim it was chance. I would look up over my computer and see in the distance a woman half-naked. She was surely practising exhibitionism more than I was practising voyeurism and, assuming that she was practising exhibitionism at all, would the use of binoculars be violating that exhibitionistic choice? Most exhibitionists no doubt feel they have some control over the degree of revelation and proximity. The person who strips in a bar might choose to take off all but their underwear; the customer will be expected to keep a few feet away from the dancing figure. If the woman across the way didn't mind that she was being watched from a hundred yards, would she be happy to be seen from several, such was the magnifying power of the lens? This was hardly a consensual relationship, I thought. Or was it, and if it happened to be it was probably predicated on the idea that anybody watching her was on the other side of the building and must remain ocularly that far apart from her.
I resisted looking through the binoculars that evening, but during the night I had vivid, tantalizing dreams that were at the same time so vague that I couldn't say when I woke the next morning whether it was Jack or me who had been in bed with the figure across the way. I know that Jack was in the dream somewhere. The next evening I decided to look at her more closely. Sitting having dinner with the binoculars by my side, at around 8 O'clock she came through from the lit hallway, and into the darkened bedroom with a yellow-towel wrapped around her waist and another wrapped around her head. She took off the head towel and started rigorously drying her hair, auburn and shoulder-length, before taking a hairdryer to it as the towel slipped from her breasts and I saw the expanse of her back. Once dried she stood up and moved towards the cupboard next to the window as I saw her fully naked before she started to put on the underwear she removed from the drawer. She seemed to do so without the exhibitionism I sensed on the occasions when the light would have been on. After, she also put on a purple uniform indicating she worked at a well-known chain of hotels. A few minutes later she exited and turned the hall light off and went, I suppose, to work. I reckoned that she was about thirty and I would now easily recognize her on the street, but it was as if I wanted to know more about her than that, wanted somehow to understand what her relationship was with me, to find out if I were the stranger whom she was tantalizing, or was it for the person in the flat below? As I've noted, we were the only two people with whom she could have been exhibiting herself to if she were exhibiting herself at all.
A couple of nights later as I saw her come into the bedroom with a towel wrapped around her, I grabbed the binoculars and accidentally left the light on. But it was as though she hadn't noticed me at all as I wondered how easy it would be for her to see that I had binoculars in my hand since I could hardly tell without them what she looked like. Yet I thought she probably could and yet she moved around the room briskly before donning again the hotel uniform. It was as if she was interested in performing for somebody but there as nothing to indicate that the performance happened to be for me.
Several days after that I watched her again, this time working out that she was probably leaving for work just after she turned the bedroom light off. I rushed down the stairs, out of the building along the street, turned a corner, then up a short street, around another corner and to where her main door entrance would have been. I waited for about a minute and saw coming out of the door the person who I now clearly recognized as the woman across the way. I followed her as she went back in the direction I had come from, and where she waited not far from my flat for a bus. It was the bus stop that would take her in the direction of Portobello and Musselburgh. I was tempted to join her but instead thought I could find out exactly where she worked with the aid of the internet, by virtual stalking, When I got home I noted that there was a Premier Inn out by Musselburgh, not far from my parents' place. I had a justifiable reason to get on the same bus but as a rule, she would go to work it would seem in the early evening - when I visited my parents it was usually for lunch, their main meal of the day. What did I want to achieve by sharing a bus with this woman I couldn't ascertain, beyond the logic of the curiosity I had set in motion, or that she had generated. It seemed that I needed to know whether she was being an exhibitionist or I was being a voyeur and suspected that if it was the former then I might perhaps be able to persuade her to extend that exhibitionistic streak into the confessional.
A few days after following her to the bus stop, having failed to see her again getting dressed in her room, I saw my downstairs neighbour locking his bike in the stairwell. Jack said he had noticed me the night before cycling towards the flat when he had popped out to the supermarket and then, when he got back, saw that I had locked it to a pipe outside. He reckoned we really should consider getting a bike rack for the garden. He said he would go online that evening, find one at a reasonable price, and then put a sign up on the main door suggesting all those with a bike in the stairwell should contribute. Those who had a bike and on a short term lease should pay half, he proposed. I concurred. In fact, he suggested, why don't we go and check now; see if we can find one whose price we agree upon? I couldn't see why not and so I followed him up the stairs at a pace a little quicker than I would usually like, and reached his door with my breathing hard but my voice remaining modulated. Unlocking the door I entered a flat identical to mine in form but quite different in content. The kitchen was brightly coloured and bowls of fruit and vegetables lay on a pine table, while the cupboards were doorless, less showing signs of neglect, than deliberately revealing their healthy contents. Cereal, cereal bars, brown rice, wholemeal couscous, herbal teas. In the sitting room by the sitting room window was a desk where his computer sat, and one wall had a few hundred books that seemed mainly concerned with his field of study, and on the other walls were paintings and photographs of what I assumed were his travels: to what looked like mainly Latin America. He noticed me looking at them and said his ex-wife was from Argentina, they had planned to start a retreat in a town in Mexico, pointing to several of the photographs. He said it with an inflection that I noticed hadn't been in his speech before, a tone that indicated whatever my forlorn feelings happened to be for Carmen, they were fleetingly deep next to his for his ex. As if determined to think about other things he asked me to come and peek at some of the bike racks he had looked at previously. We agreed to one that retailed at 800 pounds. If we could get four of us to pay a hundred and another eight fifty each that would be ideal. He insisted I stay for a tea as I drank what he called Lemon Verbena. I sipped on this herbal drink that had more body to it than other herbal teas that I had previously drunk, which usually seemed to me flavoured water. There was substance to this one - drinking it I thought briefly of my feelings for Carmen and what I assumed were his for his ex. I felt that my feelings had no substance to them either; that substance comes from believing that what two people have built has for whatever reason been disintegrated but it had been built. We were sitting drinking the tea in the kitchen, his dining table positioned like mine next to the window. I looked out and up at a slight angle and could see the woman from across the way. There was no suggestion that Jack had noticed her at all as he poured the Verbena. I resisted saying anything about her to him, though I would have liked to know if he had seen her undress at all, even if the angle wouldn't have made it as conducive at it had been for me. Yet I wondered also what he might have made of this activity of mine; the degree of his disapproval.
It would have been a couple of days after visiting Jack's place that I saw the woman getting dressed to go to work and decided I would join her on the bus. I had informed my parents that I intended to visit sometime very soon, that it would be in the evening, and was sorry that I would be giving them such short notice because I was busy with work and so on. But I said I wished to see them. I would now think that the small lie I offered them was to cover a bigger lie I did not want to offer the woman across the way, or the woman on the bus as she was soon to become, or Catherine, to give her her real name. As I left my flat just as she had switched off her bedroom light, I walked along to the bus stop and waited for her to arrive. I was alone at the stop. The bus was every half hour in the evening: there would be one in ten minutes. Five minutes later she turned up, smiled politely, and we waited for a couple of minutes in silence before I enquired where she was going, a question I wouldn't have asked if she had been fiddling with her mobile phone. But, no she was waiting for a bus as I happened to be, with no intermediate technology in hand to parry communication. She was working out in Musselburgh, she said. That is where my parents' lived, I replied. They owned a practice along the road from the Premier Inn I said, looking at her uniform. She asked me my mother's name and when I offered it she smiled, saying that this was the practice she visited, and she would have seen my mother on a few occasions over the years. She said what she liked so much about her was that she wasn't interested in her as a patient, only in the illness. It was odd, she said, but usually, we want to be recognized, our humanity to be acknowledged or something, but she knew exactly what the problem was and knew how to cure it. Then she laughed, saying that might be wonderful in a doctor but maybe not so wonderful in a mother. She then checked herself and recalled once meeting my mother on the street and acknowledging her. She was surprised; there was a warmth to the greeting that made it clear behind each patient there was a human being - just not in the surgery. The bus was a couple of minutes late and by the time it arrived, it seemed to make more sense to sit next to each other on this mainly empty bus than sit apart. Her accent sounded half-Scottish; half Polish, or perhaps Lithuanian, maybe even Russian. Yet she would end her sentences with a soft querying tone, rather than the harder, blunter annunciation I had noticed in a couple of Polish friends I used to work with at a web design company several years back. She would have been in her early thirties I realised after we had talked for about fifteen minutes. She had studied a post-grad in Movement Therapy and massage at Queen Margaret, failed to get quite the job she wished for initially, became a little disillusioned and when she managed to find work after a few months at the hotel she was still working in, she saw that in time she could combine working in the health club with certain physio work and massage. She had been working there ever since - now almost ten years. She seemed to be happy in herself, as they say, but alone in the world. I had no sense she was in a relationship, knew from what she went on to say that her family were still in Lithuania and that close friends over the years had moved away.
As the bus arrived first at my parents' place, I said it was lovely speaking to her and said we should have swapped numbers. She said I should just say my number: she had a very good memory. It took me a moment to remember my own, spoke it out loud as I recalled it, and she repeated it after me saying she would text me soon. Call me Catherine she said. I offered my name back and said I hoped she would be in touch as the bus driver gave me a stern look suggesting that I was holding him up.
The table was set and the dinner was in the oven, the smell of mixed roasted veg and rainbow trout evident on my arrival: a regular favourite of my father's. I was once again pleased to be home and, though Catherine may have noted my mother's medical manner was more precise than courteous, more determined to root out the problem than relate to her as a patient, outside the practice it was always the person who concerned her, so I wasn't surprised when Catherine corrected herself. After dinner, over a decaf coffee that my mother insisted we all drink because she loved the smell of coffee after the evening meal, but also liked to sleep, I asked her about a patient I had met on the bus. I described her and my mother took a moment before apparently remembering her. As I've noted, she could recall most of her patients, but that would be by sight: I could only offer her a description. Nevertheless, she worked out who I must be talking about, and said a few words that obviously protected Catherine's privacy while revealing a little bit more about her biography than I thus far possessed. The most important detail was that she had once met her in a cafe on the high street with various members of her family. They appeared wealthy in the way she wasn't, my mother had observed. As though she had rejected their comfort for her own freedom. It was an oddly insightful remark for my mother to make, as though she was making both an observation and a confession. I then recalled once a conversation my father and I had several years earlier when he told me that my mother had been quite the non-conformist; that for a couple of years after school and before settling on medicine she lived in squats in London, regularly marched against the nuclear bomb, Vietnam and so on. I enquired about her past after I asked her a few more questions about Catherine, and a couple of hours later, with my father asleep in the chair and the pair of us still seated at the dining table, she talked for the first time about this. By the time we finished talking I had missed the last bus and went up to my old attic room with fresh sheets in my hand and made the bed, sleeping a deep sleep interrupted at six-thirty by a trip to the toilet. Sleeping for another hour afterwards I slept lightly and dreamt of my son.
Over the next week, I didn't see Catherine stripping by the window at all. She would go in and out of her room, but fully dressed, and occasionally in uniform ready for work. But I did see Jack again, saying that he had contacted a few of the other tenants in the building, four had agreed to pay a hundred each. If I would put in a hundred he would put in a couple of hundred and buy a cheaper one than intended but that should be effective enough. He said he would show me what he found and once again I sat first briefly in his sitting room looking at the bike stand on the computer and then stayed for an hour in the kitchen drinking another cup of herbal tea. We discussed his work and he asked me about mine, but I also sensed on this occasion a loneliness absent from the previous chat we had. Though we never talked about it I believed that there was a story behind his solitude and it wasn't a happy one, but also, for some reason, a distant one, presumably linked to the Argentinean lover. He did not at all appear freshly wounded; it was the melancholic bent of someone who had absorbed a pain quietly, one that needn't effect his daily interactions but would reveal itself in moments that were more personal. I believed that to press him on this he would have talked, perhaps wished to do so, but I knew that I should get back to my flat - I had just started working on a website for a friend of the writer. He was a journalist who had taken early retirement and wanted to work more radically on his own. It was another commission that I enjoyed; I promised him I would have it done within a week.
But I also wanted to visit my parents again, and to talk once more to my mother and to Catherine, feeling a tenderness towards her that was nevertheless not sexual. I wouldn't call it fatherly either and not only because there would have been just several years between us. I found myself thinking of it as angelic, but this could have rested on thoughts that I would have a few days later after again talking with her. It would have been the day after I finished the website. I had eaten, was about to wash the dishes, when I saw Catherine enter the room in what looked like her uniform (the binoculars were in the cupboard) and as she switched off the light a minute later I assumed this was her off to work. I put on my jacket, walked to the bus stop and a few minutes later Catherine arrived and the bus just after that. We again sat together and over the half-hour journey we talked animatedly enough for her to say not long before my stop that she could join me for a tea before work if I liked. She wouldn't start till nine she said. Sometimes she arrived early, sat in the bar and would read for an hour. She also quite liked this late shift: the gym was used little during the night but she liked to work a couple of evenings a week so she could get most of the paperwork done and then be available on the other day she worked giving massages, helping people learn how to use the machines and so on.
As we sat in the bar I told her that I lived opposite her, that I would sometimes see her getting ready for work from my kitchen window. I didn't tell her I had seen her in states of undress, and couldn't easily ask her whether she would deliberately let herself be exposed so strangers could look at her, but as I spoke she looked at me ambiguously, perhaps even with complicity. I joked that if she did want somebody to observe her I thought the person in the flat below might be a better candidate for that gaze than I happened to be. In most circumstances, such a chat could have been nothing but awkward, but it was as though we both comprehended why we were both sitting there having this conversation. It was as if she knew not that I hadn't been voyeuristically looking at her, but instead watching over her, looking out for her. That would obviously be an exaggeration but it wasn't quite a misdiagnosis: at that moment I did feel like that.
I left her to start her shift and walked in the direction of my parents' house. I hadn't told them I was coming, and was relieved that I hadn't. Yet I walked over to the house nevertheless, and stood for a minute outside it, by the low hedge that allowed me to see into the kitchen window on the right and the lounge on the left. My mother was putting dishes into the dishwasher; my father was reading the newspaper in his favourite chair, with his feet up on the pouf. He started shaking his head and looked off in the direction of the kitchen, presumably repeating something he had just encountered on the page. My mother smiled, said something in return and continued loading up the dishwasher. I waited until she had finished doing so and watched as she went back through to the sitting room, giving my father a kiss on the head. Calm down she would be saying to him. He put his hand in hers and though it was a gesture I'd seen many times before, it moved me on this occasion in a way that it had never done before. As I walked along to the bus stop and on the bus home I thought a lot about watching them at a distance, finding an aspect of love in their lives which of course had always been there but which I had never somehow seen. Did it take looking at them from a distance, and through a window to see that feeling unequivocally evident?
Just before leaving Catherine to start work we had agreed to contact each other by phone. During the following few weeks we met up on several occasions and during this period I also befriended Jack. I would meet Catherine for a coffee in the later afternoon after she came off a morning shift, along the road from her flat, and would meet Jack for a pint in a pub that had been his regular for a number of years not far from the bus stop. There was no suggestion that Catherine was attracted to me, nor really me to her. When we talked we could discuss our personal lives, chat about our families, but whenever we tried to talk about our passions there was a sense the other person wasn't interested. I tried to explain what I enjoyed about web design; she tried to express her interest in the body, in the movement training she did, and the massages she would give. I felt like an intermediary, someone who could feel aggrandized only indirectly, reckoning that there might be an attraction possible between Catherine and Jack. I could be a matchmaker.
During this period I would also think a lot about my son, ever since looking through my parents' window. It was as though I didn't want my son one day to be looking through mine, unable to make contact with the father who hadn't been there for his primary school years, his difficulties through secondary school, the excitement of university. For the first time in years, I talked about him to my parents, a subject they would never broach ever since a few years before I had cut them dead when they tried to address the question. I found myself asking them if they had ever felt restricted in having me; they said they hadn't - but they were both over thirty when I was born. They had secure jobs and a house they could buy with a family in mind. My mother looked forlorn for a moment and my father uncomfortable. I knew they would have liked more children and that they too rarely saw my sister and her kids since they had moved some years earlier to Canada. Seeing so much of them in the last few months made me more and more aware of my absence from Sean, and yet how could I contact someone I had for so long ignored?
One evening in the pub with Jack I talked to him about Sean and said that I suppose I thought ten years ago the mistake I had made was to have a child and now more than a decade later I was wondering whether the mistake was to think the error was in judgement rather than in pleasure. I was right to have a child and wrong to desert him. I had tried to talk to Catherine about this as well, but when I did so she seemed to flinch, perhaps unwilling to involve herself in my life on such an intimate scale, perhaps because she had miscarried or aborted, even perhaps because she had a child she left in Lithuania. It was when I realized we could talk to each other about our lives, but I was not a man with whom she wished to discuss her emotions. I suggested to him that he should meet someone I knew, someone I had got to know recently and that they might get on. I said that years earlier she had studied movement therapy, that she was sensitive, if a little guarded, but that was how she reacted to me - with him she might be different. The next time I met up with Catherine I said no more than that I had a friend in the same apartment block who might join us a for a coffee the next time we were to meet up. I suppose it was my way also of saying that I had no designs on her, without quite suggesting somebody else might.
At around the same time I discussed again with my mother whether I should contact Sean, and how best to do so. She proposed that she would contact his mother, whom she had met briefly only twice, and ask her if it was possible to see her grandson. She would explain that she did not feel it was her right to intrude when the boy's father had wished for little contact, but that she thought her son had grown up at least and wished to see his son growing up too. She knew it would be a difficult call to make, and yet I could see that she very much wished to make it; if she could have only have had one son, she would at least like to have a grandson as well.
Catherine, Jack and I met up in a cafe at eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning. Catherine had come directly from a Yoga class, was wearing tight pants and a loose-fitting T-shirt underneath a thick, sheepskin coat that she removed as soon as she arrived in the busy, well-heated cafe that looked out onto Prince St and across at the gardens. Jack arrived a minute afterwards, from a swim at the pool in Stockbridge He liked being a member of Edinburgh Leisure, rather than private gym or club: it gave him the opportunity to use facilities in various parts of town. Sometimes he would feel like a swim on his way home from work and stop off at Portobello; sometimes he would be doing something on this side of town and use Glenogle, and so on. Saying this he instantly presented himself as a person with enthusiasm, initiative and a sense of adventure and Catherine was instantly drawn. He seemed no less so when he asked her where she did Yoga and he knew the instructor, thought she was the best in Edinburgh, and that he had asked her a couple of times to lead sessions on the movement course he taught out at Musselburgh. And so on. I had been doing no such exercise that morning, and still felt if not half asleep then feeling that my muscles in my legs hadn't quite woken up as I asked them what they wanted to drink and went off and ordered two coffees and a herbal tea. The queue was long and I observed Catherine and Jack for a few minutes, and I wasn't surprised when I returned to the table that they had decided they would meet up again to see a film in the middle of the week. They politely asked if I would like to join them, and I said I probably wouldn't be able to make it. They didn't look crestfallen.
I had no further contact with Catherine, but I went for a pint again with Jack the weekend after they had gone to the cinema. He told me he was very happy that I had introduced him to Catherine, that he would see her again the following evening. He didn't say much more but it was clear in how he spoke that they were seeing each other. I was pleased but also mildly saddened. Later that night, lying in bed, I tried to work out why this was so since I believed I wasn't especially attracted to Catherine; that I should have been pleased my matchmaking skills were so successful. But I wondered whether I was so astute or if they had been so needy, keen to be in a relationship and that a few points of coincidence were enough to encourage it. It was a cynical thought about people I didn't believe were at all cynical as I wondered how much more so I had been over the years. Or perhaps cynicism wasn't quite the word: selfish, certainly, and maybe I have applied a cynical view of the world to justify it. If I managed to look at things with a jaundiced perspective, if I assumed that people's motives were far from pure, then, of course, I had to protect myself from such cynicism and selfishness was its manifestation.
It would have been a few days after those thoughts, indeed a few days ago, that my mother phoned to say that she had spoken to Sean's mother. She had left a couple of messages on her mobile phone and a couple of weeks had passed before she returned the call. They had talked for half an hour and Carol wondered whether it was a good idea if I were to come back into her son's life only to disappear again. For the moment she would be happy if my mother wanted to see Sean, to form a bond at least with his grandparents, and then to see from there. This seemed to be a reasonable request as I had given too little thought to how I had not only neglected my child but also robbed my grandparents of the right to see their grandson. As my mother talked I could hear in her voice grateful relief while I felt an exacerbated guilt, one that suddenly acknowledged a responsibility greater than that just towards Sean. I mumbled an apology, which was followed by silence before she said she ought to go now. There was no reason why she had to, but I had never seen or heard my mother cry and I wasn't going to do so now from the other end of the line.
Later that evening, around eleven o'clock, I was eating a bowl of cereal and looked across the way, seeing for the first time that Catherine's curtains were closed. I am not sure if the window had curtains before, whether she had gone out and bought a pair, or whether she just didn't usually close them. I assumed that Jack and Catherine had become lovers, that they were now cuddling up across the way and did not want the prying eyes of a stranger who also happened to be a friend. I also thought about what would happen when they stayed over at Jack's place. The walls were thin and on occasion, I had heard neighbours having sex; would I soon be hearing Jack and Catherine? This suggested a friendship would be difficult, that moving out might be the best idea, even if I'd agreed, the following morning, to be around when the bike stand was being delivered: an attempt, surely, to make this address my home.
Before going to be I read through some of the stories of the writer whose work I had laboriously transferred from his old website to the new one, and in doing so I could see that aspects of my own life resembled a number of the stories he told. I wondered if he might be interested in mine, using it no more as a base for his own preoccupations and fascinations. I thus sent him my thoughts the following day to see what he would make of them, and, while waiting for a reply, I am also waiting to find out whether I will once again, or perhaps for the first time, have a relationship with my son.
© Tony McKibbin