More than a decade ago had impressed me with his maturity, as if he were the older man I might wished to have become. He was probably about forty-five then, and I assumed he was lecturing at a college here in Edinburgh. I would sometimes see him in cafes around the city, often chatting with people half his age: frequently women, sometimes men; mostly, I assumed, students. Yet he never appeared lecherous with the women or condescending towards the men.
Joe was of average height, but with imposing hands and shoulders that might have given the impression of mass if first encountering him sitting down, and perhaps one reason why I view him of diminished status now when I see him wandering around the city is that I usually see him standing up. But I think it resides much more in an event, perhaps several events, that happened to him during the interim. Where before I rarely saw him without company, in more recent years it is rare to see him other than on his own. Where before he seemed to slouch while sitting as if so in control of his environment that he felt no need to assert himself in assured body language, now when he walks he seems almost hunched, as if trying to hide himself even in broad daylight.
Joe might have remained forever a figure I would see around town and occasionally muse over, wondering who he might be and what his story was, but more recently he became more clearly a figure in my life.
For about eight years I had been teaching a photography course that would pay me enough money to lecture a few hours a week while still having plenty time for pursuing my own interests, which, surprisingly, less and less concerned photography. I got the job on the basis of some exhibitions and some mild success not that long after finishing a degree in English at the university here, but I might look back now and say any ambition I possessed as a photographer rested on the opportunity it might have given me for a teaching job I was happy to accept. I found myself enjoying studying the history and theory of photography more than taking pictures, and now if I am creative at all it takes the form of writing essays and articles on photography as a perceptual mode in the world.
One of the things I find especially interesting is to write about all the photographs that haven't been taken. What do I mean by this? I suppose I see the photograph as perception transfixed. We take a moment out of the flow of our perceptions to fix that moment of time into a photographic eternity. Yet there are many moments in our lives that we never photograph but which are also fixed in time, a sort of internal eternity of mind rather than the external eternity of the photograph. The photograph is both the exhibit and the exhibitionism of this fixed perception: people usually see us taking a photograph and it possesses evidence in the world, whether in our computer, on a wall and/or in a gallery. But imagine a secret life of the photograph: one that was never taken and thus could never be exhibited. This is in recent years what has increasingly fascinated me, and of course, I am thinking now a little of Joe, who both impressed and distressed me at different moments. I have no photographs of him with his students years before, nor any of the occasions in which I have seen him walk the streets. Yet the impression has been indelible, and I use the adjective advisedly. With photos we can erase them from existence, however difficult that may have now become in an internet age. But the memories we have, those images we imprint on our minds, and for which there is no negative that can be destroyed, remains somewhere in us. While there are many moments from my life walking around the streets of Edinburgh that have no such indelible images, there must be about a hundred of the aging man.
Why, you might ask, and my simple answer would be that it is a rare instance where I have felt envy for a man whom I would later feel pity, and yet where these two feelings can hardly be called categorical. Until recently I knew too little about his life to offer such strong responses, but I suppose I must have felt when I would first see him in bars and cafes with students around him, that he was, if not regularly bedding the women, at least a charismatic presence they wished to be around. More recently he seemed to have no friends at all.
Perhaps I exaggerate how often this man has been in my mind; maybe had it not been for a job I applied for, and a still more recent account of his existence, I could not have recalled so many images of his presence in my memory. But, after hearing about him, I realized I could recall numerous images. What happened was that a while ago I was offered his old job.
I had no idea of course when I took the post that it happened to be almost exactly the job he had done in the past. Where at the college in which I'd been teaching for a number of years I was exclusively focusing on photography and photographic theory, the new course was more incorporative, including film, and, more recently, digital imaging in new media. It meant learning lots of new information and also on occasion bluffing my way through a few courses I would teaching, feeling that I didn't quite understand some of the concepts I was utilizing. I relied a little too much on knowledge gleaned in the past and applied it to new subjects in the present.
I noticed too that I had a quite different relationship with the students than at the previous institute. Where the college before saw itself much more vocationally, training people up for a career in the media, the new institution, which was an art college, viewed itself more as a place where students could experiment with new possibilities. The students also appeared much more confident, and it wasn't unusual for them to ask me to continue the discussion in the cafe after the class if I had half an hour, to invite me out for drinks of an evening. I think many of them found me quaint, well aware that I was no more abreast of technological developments than they were, but with a sense of the theoretical implications behind these new areas that they found useful, even fascinating.
I was thirty-five when I took the new job: a 0.4 position that should have taken up no more time than the old one, but to which I offered far more of my energy. This was partly in socialising with the students, but it was also in putting on screenings of films, arranging photographic exhibitions, and also art installations based on new media. During this period I am not sure if I had seen the older man at all, or if I had I'd failed mentally to snapshot him as I would so frequently before. It was as though in those earlier years I had created in my life the space for perception, for seeing things but not quite living them. I was in a relationship from my mid-to-late twenties, but when that ended I wanted to be alone, I wanted to find a solitude that needn't feel like loneliness whenever someone would leave. An absurd hope of course, but an attitude that I nevertheless believed I was practicing as so many things in my life I would do alone during that period. I would watch films on my own, go to cafes on my own and to exhibitions on my own. I would travel alone. It wasn't that I didn't have friends, more that I would see them only very occasionally if invited over for dinner, or out for a few drinks. I wanted the rhythm of my life to be that of solitude, and for a number of years that is exactly what I achieved. If someone had asked whether this was out of a deep mourning for a loved one who left, I wouldn't have denied it, but I wouldn't have too readily admitted it either. Maybe she left because she saw that I was seeking the solitary and that her presence was a hindrance to it. This didn't make it any the less painful when she departed, but I would probably have insisted that the hurt cauterized into the necessary solitude.
It would have been while I was still with Gabriela that I first started seeing the man with his students. And while as I've noted I would see him frequently with what I assumed were those he was teaching, I would also often see him alone. I think what I admired, perhaps even envied, wasn't only, or even especially, what seemed like his charisma with others, but his capacity to be solitary. When I saw him reading in cafes or sometimes at the cinema, there was no sense of a lonely man; more someone purposefully in their own company, as though others would dilute it. I assumed partly what made him so charismatic was this capacity for solitude: to replenish himself and then be capable once again of sharing company and giving himself to others. But it was as if at a certain point this combination was no longer possible for him, that he felt he needed to, or was forced to, retreat. I suppose when I look back on it now, he had become ever more solitary as I started to become more sociable.
What might seem interesting is that during all those years in which I would see him in the city, we never acknowledged each other, and I don't believe there was ever a moment when I wished to befriend him. There are certain people that we observe: we seem to wish to know them through observation and speculation, and perhaps also through narration: through hearing about their lives at one remove, and from someone who happened to know them. I suspect this is part of the appeal of narratives in film and written form, and why we attend to characters in films and books that we might actively avoid in life. They are best revealed to us through distance more than closeness. He was such a figure, and if anybody had asked me whether I would have liked either to meet him or know about him, I would have chosen the latter.
During the first couple of years teaching at the art college I seemed to have taken on characteristics I wouldn't have thought were part of my personality. I became gregarious and even on occasion boisterous: there would often be student parties I would be invited to and while I would never get so drunk that I made a fool of myself, I was inebriated enough to feel instead, a little full of myself, and it was during this period I had a number of lovers. Often these were students but never my own: a line I insisted I ought not to cross, and never really felt the need to do so. My boisterousness manifested itself in a certain confidence, a way of talking loudly in a kitchen full of people knowing I could hold their attention. I possessed authority, and if I didn't abuse it in numerous social situations, then I definitely used it.
A few parties and pub evenings now come to mind, but only one of those evenings is important to disclose. It was not so long ago, three years into the job. I had screened a film at 5.00 on a Friday afternoon; we had an hour-long discussion that I led after it, and then a few of us continued on to a nearby pub where we had a bar supper and a couple of pints. There were five of us, two students in their final undergraduate year, and the other two on the post-grad programme. The undergraduates were students of mine and a couple; the post-grads were neither a couple nor students in any of my courses. They were both equally interesting, but it was to the young woman I was, I think, quite understandably drawn. It might have been the perfume she wore, a light, fruity scent that was worn like a phrase barely audible: you had to lean towards her to catch it. It might have been the voice, or was it the accent? She was French and spoke English with a lingering attention to certain consonants, and the voice was soft, cooing and indicative of confession. In her appearance, she possessed an undecidable beauty: depending on the angle, the light, or the person observing, she would have been described as never less than pretty, but some might resist calling her beautiful. Sometimes under the light, Helene looked slightly skeletal, while when I saw her returning from the bar with drinks, crossing the crowded, cacophonous pub where no music was playing, I noticed several men look at her, and saw in her an immense attractiveness that harsh overhead light could reduce. But it was as though under the hard light I saw a tenderness that I wanted to comprehend.
After we had talked for a while, the couple said they were thinking of going along to a party not too far away. They said it was definitely going to be a party and not a gathering. Helene asked what happened to be the difference; they explained that the flat was enormous (six people sharing), and they would have a proper sound system and that one of the flatmates worked as a DJ. That is a party. And a gathering? Usually no more than a dozen people chatting in the sitting room, with one or two others in the kitchen. At a gathering, new arrivals are conspicuous and feel they have to justify their presence. At a party, you are just adding to the mass. Helene looked at me, perhaps to wonder if I was going to go, maybe to see if the distinction was justified. I replied that I thought it sounded very much like a party, and I would be happy to go along.
Nothing happened between Helene and I that evening, but perhaps a complicity was established, and her past tentatively revealed. Her family was from Paris, which was where she studied and where her boyfriend happened to be. She seemed to present him as a necessary evil rather than a distant pleasure, but that could have been how I wished to perceive it. Yet I had the feeling that one reason she had chosen to take the course in Edinburgh was to remove herself from ties at home, though these I acknowledged at the time could have been familial more than sentimental. Her undergraduate degree was in law. She had taken a couple of years off afterwards to work in part-time jobs and to paint: it was her favourite subject at school, she had always painted and drawn, and believed she had to find a way of continuing to do so. She wasn't misguided enough to believe she would make a living as an artist; more that she knew in pursuing law she would without a doubt have no time to concentrate on painting. She almost certainly wouldn't make a living as an artist, but she knew for certain that she couldn't make art while being a lawyer.
It was that evening I also told her something I had never told anyone else, and this had nothing to do with the disclosing of a great secret; more a revelation of a certain perspective. We were discussing the importance for her of painting, and the lack of importance for me even to take photographs. I somehow enjoyed reducing my vision to a mental click of the button; she needed to expand that perception into the lengthy effort of painting a picture. I asked her what she painted: always landscapes she said. Wasn't that a little conservative I tentatively proposed. Perhaps, she admitted, but believed that her style was what she supposed would be called hyper-realist. She said while obviously many painters moved towards abstraction in the wake of photography's presence, what she wanted to do was see painting as a radical form of exposure time. In early photography, as I well knew, it could take about eight hours to expose an image; now it could be done instantaneously. But an imitative landscape or portrait still has a lengthy exposure time: the artist is exposed to the image they are trying to replicate for often more than eight hours, sometimes, days, weeks. It is that patience of perception that she wanted to capture. Why only landscapes I asked. She didn't think it was fair to make the sitter exposed to such a lengthy process. Landscapes never complained.
What she said, of course, interested me, but not only due to her capacity to speak lucidly about what she was doing, but also because it led me to think about what I was doing in refusing any longer to take photographs. I too, I suspect, had some equivalent of exposure time; and it was twofold. Firstly I think I became aware that I couldn't easily photograph the images I wanted to focus upon. If it is rude to stare for more than a few seconds, it is ruder still to take a photograph of many things that interest us perceptually. Social politeness often dictates what we can film, but what we can look at is much, much broader. As long as we merely look and don't stare, if we quickly avert our gaze and then later look again, then that is still socially acceptable. That would be one reason. The other resided in memory: in locking an image in one's mind and exposing it to frequent reassessment.
We had been talking for more than an hour in the kitchen and I had hardly noticed that while when we arrived there had been around a dozen people in the room, now we were alone. Over the course of the discussion, people had interrupted us, trying to get the sink, or drunkenly shouted that people were having a deep conversation in the kitchen. But the disturbances didn't affect our trains of thought at all. Even the strip lighting that always seemed to me better utilised for interrogation over confession didn't seem to impact at all on the intimacy of our chat - though intimacy maybe wasn't quite the word. But what was? I had noticed when we started chatting that her skin was courser than I imagined, her fair complexion having tanned too frequently or accidentally from the yearly holidays in the south of France that she had mentioned in passing. But though she must still have been under thirty, it gave her a look in the kitchen of someone older. Halfway through the conversation, it gave her countenance a maturity amplified by the nature of her thinking.
One reason why I would write essays on photographs rested on this question of absorbing the memory of an image and then sometimes years later formulating an idea about it. I would never think of going to an exhibition and reviewing it. I said to her that I had written essays on photographs that, for whatever reason, I couldn't get out of my mind. There was one from the beginning of the eighties when Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe at Wimbledon. It wasn't until writing on it about four years earlier that I worked out perhaps why it so fascinated me. Here were two top athletes, who had fought a five-set game that was very close with Borg winning the title for the final time. Yet looking at this photograph it was as though McEnroe had stumbled into the game as a dare; Borg the obvious winner. As they held out their hands to each other over the net, Borg's arms and legs were striated, his posture precise and springy. McEnroe's arms looked weak and undefined; his body lumpen and un-athletic. What I wanted to capture in writing about this photograph was the aesthetics of sport: that though McEnroe would go on to win the title the following year and push Borg into retirement, he could never win the aesthetic victory, a photographic, photogenic achievement that would remain in one's mind long after other games, after the players would get older and become middle-aged and old men. Borg personified the tennis player at the peak of his sporting prowess, and while focusing on this particular photo I also invoked others. There was one from the same year with Steve Ovett beating Sebastian Coe in the Olympic 800 metres. Ovett won the race but looked exhausted in the still shot, Coe beat Ovett in the 1500 a few days later and, though exhausted too, with his hands outstretched and his head looking upwards, it passes for an ecstatic moment: a self-crucifixion as athletic victory. I mentioned another couple of photos in the essay as well. One shows Muhammad Ali when he was still Cassius Clay. It is of Clay facing the camera standing over the toppled Sonny Liston, whose back we see. Another is of George Best in the middle of a game, mud-spattered, with thick almost shoulder length hair and a beard. He seems pensive rather than active, watching the game rather than participating in it, but looking like a player who is wise to the moment and not obliviously running after a ball. In each photograph, I saw a personification of the athletic. I could not claim they were equally important figures in sport: Muhammad Ali was without a doubt a legend: someone who would pass for a modern God alongside figures in other fields; Churchill in politics, Marilyn Monroe in cinema, Mother Theresa in religion. Yet they were all (Ali, Borg, Coe and Best) for me individuals who created a feeling of completeness: of finding in their sport an image of their own prowess. I could not find an equivalent photograph of McEnroe for example. I knew this involved my own projections, my own youthful fascination with a number of sporting personalities, but I wanted in the essay to try and arrive at a photographic truth. I wanted to say that these images fix in our minds and stand in for many others as paradigmatic.
I had been talking non-stop for about twenty-five minutes. If there is one thing worse than a monologue, it is a monologue on a piece of your own work, and what is worse than that is feeling, after talking so much, that you still haven't quite made your point. But Helene paused for a moment and said that she thought my thesis was bigger than photography, perhaps why it couldn't quite be explained or contained. She said that there were images of her parents, for example, that remained in her mind for years, and had only been recently lodged by new images, as if by new paradigms: a sort of mental paradigm shift in our own perceptions of people we love. For many years her parents were young, beautiful, assertive and energetic. But about two years ago, she said, she was holidaying in the South of France with them and her brother, and they were in front climbing a set of steps and she noticed they were helping each other negotiate them. It was an image of burgeoning fragility, and now whenever she would think of them it would be this image that would immediately come to mind, as if others had to be nudged into recollection. It had become their paradigm image and it had changed the way that she interacted with them. For years she felt as though she was fighting with them even when they weren't arguing; now she believed she was much more considerate, making sure their needs were met rather than assuming her intentions were being thwarted.
At this, she looked at me with a gaze suggesting that was more than enough explanation and exploration for one evening, saying that we should go through and dance. She took me by the hand, weaved us through a few bodies in the hall, by the door of the living room, and towards a space by the window where we could move easily. I didn't dance, but it was as though I didn't need to do so; that she moved for the pair of us, and as she held my hands as we swayed, I tried to follow the rhythm of her body so hopeless was I when it came to trying to follow the music.
After about ten minutes I released myself from her grip and stood by the window saying I would watch her dance. She continued moving to the music, as if finding in her body a place of solitude that included me as an onlooker, rather like an actor on stage offering a soliloquy that is offered to no one and everyone. For some reason I couldn't quite explain, I slipped away while her eyes were closed, grabbed my jacket and left the building.
I walked through the streets as if pleased to be free, but from what? Perhaps I had a sudden sense that this woman could destroy me, but what did that mean? Over the next few days unable to stop thinking of Helene, realising that I had taken numerous photos of her with my imagination and they were fixed in my mind, I wondered if this is what had happened to the aging man: that someone had become a photographic imposition: that his mind had become flooded with fixed images.
Obviously, I offer the above with the awareness these weren't my thoughts of that evening alone, but numerous thoughts since too: about my own existence and also the former lecturer's. Now I would say while I was imposing thoughts in Helene's mind, she was much more strongly creating images in mine, and it was from this, I believe, I was trying to run away that evening. A week later I saw her again walking towards me through one of the art college's corridors. I don't quite know what I expected, but what I received was a smile that suggested she knew why I had left that evening as she kept walking. I was left devastated. My nerves, as if recovering from a shock, demanded a drink but received instead a long walk. I picked up my bag from the office, and started moving in the direction of the parliament. From there I walked up and around Arthur's Seat, then continued out by the Innocent Railway, and along by Cameron Toll, then up to my flat in Morningside. The walk took three hours, on an early March afternoon: I left at four and it was dark by the time I got home.
I didn't see her for another few weeks after that, but then I was waiting for a colleague in a cafe not far from the art college when Helene came in. She looked around as if looking for someone when her eyes noticed me. I quickly looked down and then up again as she came in my direction. She asked if she could take a seat for a moment. I said I was waiting for someone from work but he probably wouldn't arrive for a few more minutes; he was usually late. She asked me why I hadn't said goodbye that evening at the party, but as she asked it seemed no more than a casual remark more than an intense question. While the evening had been on my mind constantly, I sensed that it had been a moment of bafflement for her on the night, as if only my presence now reminded her of it. She had I believed taken no mental photographs of our time together. She asked me if I was busy the following day and I said I might be free in the early evening: that I would text her if I could meet her for a drink. We swapped phone numbers and off she went, taking another look around the cafe before leaving. The cafe's frontage was made of glass, it was late March and the clocks hadn't yet changed. It had been quite dark outside, the lights were on in the cafe, and the weather was comfortable: there were no steamed windows and Helene could have looked directly inside and would have seen me sitting there. If I had taken numerous mental photographs of her in recent weeks, there I was a moment after she had left offering a hypothesis over her behaviour. I wasn't only incapable of getting her image out of my mind, I was also creating thoughts about her motivations. Was that what I had been doing in my work in recent years too: taking certain images and creating ideas around them?
When the colleague, Phil, arrived my first question after asking what he would like to drink, was if he had seen me sitting there from outside. He offered a puzzled look and wondered why I was asking. No reason I insisted, but when I returned from ordering his coffee I asked him another question that generated a look of initial bemusement. I asked him about the person who used to work in the job before I was employed there. I added that I would quite often see him wandering around the city, and wanted to know what his story happened to be.
Phil had been working at the art college for about fifteen years: he was in the architecture department and designed a couple of joint courses with Joe. I had asked him in passing about Joe over the previous two years, but it was though I didn't know Phil well enough to press him on who this man had been, nor quite felt the urgency that had come over me in recent weeks to know more about him. But sitting there in the cafe, a few minutes before having spoken to Helene, I wanted to know if this man wh9o seemed to have changed over the years in ways more than most.
Joe had been at the college for a few years before Phil arrived, and Joe would have been in his mid-to-late thirties at the time. Joe was never very good at filling in the necessary paperwork, would sometimes mark students essays too idiosyncratically, and would often turn up late or not at all for meetings. But he would always help a colleague who needed it, students who wanted to talk about the essay grade he had given them, and was, everyone agreed, a receptive, entertaining teacher. He once said teaching was not a profession, it was a social engagement: a teacher's purpose was to create an engaging environment in which people wanted to learn. He had no interest in teaching anything, but he hoped people were learning a lot.
However, a couple of years before he gave up his post, a mature student arrived. While she wasn't one of Joe's students, she would often join him and others in the pub and at various social gatherings. While Joe had been married young in his mid-twenties, he was divorced by the time Phil knew him. His love life was a mystery to people but there was no sense that he didn't have one. He would sometimes go away for long weekends and people assumed it was with a lover. But there was no girlfriend anybody was introduced to and no sense that he was sleeping with the students.
Until Rachael. She was a student in her mid-twenties working on an MFA through the architecture department who, in the second year, would increasingly be seen in Joe's company. They would initially be seen having a coffee in the canteen, then a drink in a nearby pub, and then at the cinema or a restaurant. It became a subject of gossip: people assumed Joe had a love life, but everyone thought it was one far away from the college buildings. It was as though he could get away with having an attitude as long as he didn't too obviously have a way with the ladies. But there was this glamorous young woman whom he appeared to be dating. She was, people would say, from a wealthy Swedish family, though she didn't look typically Scandinavian. Someone told him that the father was Spanish, the mother Swedish, and the money from the mother's side: they owned large companies in both telecommunications and the paper industry. The young woman wore her wealth without ostentation but with its evident presence. Her style was her own thanks to the friends she supposedly knew in the fashion industry: she would commission cuts and colours that would fit and suit her perfectly. She was of average height and thus a couple of inches smaller than Joe, but with long legs that suggested she was much taller than she happened to be.
I said he appeared to have observed her closely, or at least others had: a lot of the information he possesed he merely needed to overhear. If she had been an object of mild interest before the affair with Joe; she was the topic of conversation during it. How long did it last I asked, and did people know for sure they were seeing each other. He didn't doubt that they were: on a couple of occasions, while on the other side of the town, he saw them walking along the street holding hands. Also, during most of that year, Joe wasn't as available as he had been to his students. His lectures and tutorials were still very entertaining, Phil would hear, but Joe would rarely go for coffee with the students afterwards, and seemed to stop going with them to the pub. As Phil talked I wondered just as there were people who would take mental photographs, were there others who took social photographs. If the mental photograph allowed someone to exist in our minds, as we would dwell on their characteristics, the social photograph passes through people as gossip: as if nobody holds the other person in their minds, but instead up for judgement: a moral pass the parcel that leads increasingly to the person being dismissed.
I didn't quite feel Phil was one of those people: I think he was inclined to pass on what he heard without much judgement, but neither did he appear to be someone for whom reflecting on people was important. I didn't have much of a sense from him of either Joe or the young woman: he was doing little more than passing on what he knew. He did it without empathy or vicious enthusiasm, but it occurred to me he was not a man given to mental photography. I asked how the affair ended. He said that as far as he knew she went back to Sweden and that was its natural conclusion. But he didn't suppose Joe took it to be natural at all. He stayed in the job for another year and then left: most assumed he was heartbroken, and couldn't keep being reminded of her in the place that he taught. Some were surprised he didn't leave the city altogether.
I don't know why, but I thought Joe may not have been heartbroken. I imagined a man who had had many lovers, and that while perhaps this young woman had broken his heart a little, she had much more broken a value that he held dear. Why I think this I can't easily say, except to insist that it might have been my instinct because of my own towards Helene. Why had I walked out of the party that evening? It was as if I found the answer in the story Phil told me about Joe's life. I wondered if Joe had given up the job and eschewed most social contact afterwards because he had lost some sort of subtle internal code that we don't even quite know we have until something or someone breaks it, or at least breaks into it. Perhaps even decodes it. What was my code, I wondered, and did I have a feeling that Helene could decipher it?
That evening and the next morning I fiddled around with my phone wondering whether to text Helene. To fail to do so would have been tantamount to rudeness; to do so might be to find myself in a couple of years' time wandering around the city as if all social interaction were a threat. I knew I needed to offer Helene an explanation, yet knew that if she could accept it, understand it, my feelings for her would increase and I would be as caught as Joe had been. I recalled another thing Phil had said, or rather than Phil told me Joe had supposedly said to another colleague. Joe reckoned if she at all broke his heart it was only because she understood his mind, or an aspect of it that no one had previously shown any interest in. The rest of the world can make us feel very lonely after that.
I apologized in the text for not getting back to her sooner, saying that I would be free from seven that evening but I would understand it if she had made other arrangements. She texted back half an hour later saying she was still free, suggested a place and I replied saying that would be fine.
As I finished work and walked over to the other side of town, I wondered if she would ask me at all about my party disappearing act. If she didn't I thought I would be safe; if she did she might want to understand me in ways many of us manage to avoid for our entire lives. While walking I was reminded of the book I was reading: based on an actual case, the writer explores how a man for many years managed to lie to all his family and his friends: he claimed to be a doctor but never passed the exams, and kept up the ruse by borrowing from everyone who would lend him money. But over the years nobody asked him the type of questions that would have instantly revealed the falsity of his existence. This man, who ended up killing his entire family when it looked like they would finally find out, was an extreme example of what we all perhaps are: mysteries to others but containing a bigger mystery in ourselves. As the writer says at one moment, the man probably put more effort into pretending to be a doctor than it would have taken him to be one. But maybe our efforts are more often unconscious than conscious.
I arrived in the cafe bar ten minutes in advance. It was already busy with early evening workers, people who looked like they were finishing their day rather than starting their evening. It was Friday night and most of the people were dressed in suits, winding down but drinking up: a pint or two before going home. I'd been in the cafe a couple of times before, but never much liked it. It was grand and echoing in the New Town manner, reflecting a Scotland that was a place for English comfort and Scottish old money. I wondered why Helene chose it and assumed she was living in the area: which didn't make me feel any the better. Why would she have rented in this part of town?
I looked at my phone and it was after seven, and looked again ten minutes later. No sign of Helene and no message either. When it was twenty past I assumed that she had never intended to come: that this was revenge for walking out on her at the party all those weeks earlier. I took out my book, sipped at the glass of wine I had ordered, and didn't even look towards to the door every minute or two to see if she would arrive. I put my phone in my bag so I could concentrate on what I was reading. Oddly, I managed to focus, perhaps because it didn't feel like a distraction from events but spoke of them in a slightly different manner. So when at around twenty to eight a breathless Helene came into the bar, apologizing for her lateness, I didn't have to fake a blas attitude; I really didn't expect to see her at all.
As she sat down, taking off her coat, and ostentatiously apologetic, she said that her phone had died; she was at a friend's place in Leith, and while her friend was telling her about a crisis she was going through, she envisaged me becoming increasingly irate at her absence, thinking about the rudeness of someone who isn't even texting to say she is running late. I jokingly said I might have been happier if she had been forty minutes late arriving at a cafe I would have chosen to sit in: the real insult lay in the choice not in the lateness. Perhaps the tone wasn't quite right and the remark came off as a little sour, but I wanted to find out why she chose this cafe; what part of town she happened to be living in. Helene replied that she lived on Leith Walk and didn't know of too many cafes in the town centre that were open in the evenings. I was happy with her reply; irritated that I had asked at all - even if I knew I would have been more irritated still if I hadn't known the answer.
Asking if she could sip my wine - a Malbec - before deciding what to order for herself (she chose the same), I knew that any intention I had of retreating from the situation as Joe had failed to do so years earlier, would depend less on my will than on her intentions. I half-hoped that she would talk about her boyfriend in France: make it clear to me that, even if she might have burgeoning feelings for me, she had established ones for her partner back home: that she would offer some excuse which wouldn't leave me feeling that she wasn't interested but wouldn't in her interest leave me open to future exposure as perhaps happened to Joe. Again I am projecting what I had found out about Joe into my situation at the time. But I felt a sense of trepidation from that first evening speaking to Helene, and it was still there.
When the place closed five hours later, after we had eaten out of hunger without any sense of the food we had ordered, I had none of the usual annoyance I would have sitting in a place I didn't like. If someone had asked me how the waiters were that evening, whether there were some obnoxious customers, if the food was tasty, the wine good, I would say I couldn't remember. What I recall is the conversation and her gestures: that very rare feeling of being comprehended. She didn't mention the boyfriend at all, as if they had broken up months ago.
Of course, she asked me why I walked off at the party but did so without anger; she asked as though enquiring about a work of art that intrigued her and hoped the artist could say a little bit more about it. I remembered a comment by an Argentinean writer quoting a great philosopher: the idea that all things wish to persist in their being. Perhaps, though, we aspire not to be ourselves but, as another philosopher proposed, a work of art. That we wish not to be understood, but interpreted. If we cannot understand ourselves the best we can hope for is an insightful interpretation. Helene that night offered several. I might have offered one or two back; I cannot say.
Over the next couple of months I saw Helene often, but I never attempted to suggest we do any more than eat, drink, walk and talk. This might sound odd, but the situation made it appear natural. Perhaps it was out of respect for the boyfriend that she had recently split up with. It was also as if that awkward silence which might lead to a kiss never materialised, or it rested on our conversation in the cafe that evening where there was no suggestion that she still had a boyfriend, but nevertheless indicated that she intended to return to Paris in three months' time, after finishing the degree. On a couple of occasions, we saw walking through the streets Joe, and I told her he was someone who fascinated me, someone for whom I had made a number of mental photographs.
The night before she left we went to dinner with other friends she had met on the course and in the city. I won't describe the meal in a restaurant not far from my own flat near the Meadows, nor who was present, only to say I think we were both relieved when I suggested that people were free to come back to my place for a drink (where Helene would be staying the night) and everyone declined. It was a Thursday night and people talked of having work the next day. Helene had handed in her keys earlier that morning, and earlier that evening I had helped her take her things from her place to mine, where she would take a taxi to the airport late the following morning. She had been to my flat a couple of times before (just as I had been to hers), but that night it seemed fraught with either loss or excitement, or perhaps both. I wasn't sure how I had constructed in my mind that this ought to have been no more than a friendship but manage it I had. For some reason, until that evening, I had never quite desired her. On every other occasion over those two or three months that we had met up, we were alone. We would always talk to each other rather than observe each other. But on that final evening, in the restaurant, as we were talking to others, we would often look across the table and offer complicity in our glances. It was as though we had paradoxically avoided intimacy for months through meeting exclusively in each other's company, and now we had created it by a hint of distance.
The more obvious distance would soon become apparent, so when we walked for a few minutes back to my flat, it was with a feeling of both anticipation and the anticipation of loss. It was also the first evening she had stayed over, and when we walked through the front door she said that she had a request to make. She would love to sleep with me; not make love, she insisted, just sleep. I could have accepted that here was a woman who for months now had been playing with my feelings and now she decided on the final night to play with my desires too. Yet I don't believe I was being nave in reckoning that this was a request containing within it a deeper response than a perverse game on her part, and masochism on mine. I didn't doubt for a moment that evening that she desired me also. But it was as if we both knew that consummation would have proved nothing: that over the years she would have slept with and might go on to sleep with other men without much feeling or complicity, and I knew I had done and would do the same.
We lay next to each other talking, yet never touched. We discussed many things, and I even again mentioned Joe. I had told her a few details about him already, but until then I hadn't told Helene the story Phil had told me. I told her that night and said I saw a fear I felt as if my own: a projective future of loneliness that could only look back on my past popularity like a period of time that had happened to someone else. I said I didn't know whether a personal tragedy had befallen him, or a personal decision had been made: had he failed in love or succeeded in removing himself from the social fray? Had a parent or sibling died; had it hurt him more than he might have realized? I told her all I knew about him was that he had more or less my job a few years earlier. She asked why I hadn't mentioned this when I pointed him out on the street; I said I didn't know.
It was seven o'clock in the morning, we still hadn't slept and Helene asked me why I had never tried to kiss her. I replied that I never felt the offer was there; hadn't she had a boyfriend in Paris, and wasn't she then recovering from a break-up? That wouldn't have stopped many men, she said, and so I added that it would have added little to my strange happiness, and might have taken some of it away. She felt the same, she said, and at that moment the natural thing to do would have been to kiss in acknowledgment of that joint feeling, while risk ruining the subtlety of our well-being.
I didn't see Helene off at the airport. Around nine we got up; she showered while I prepared breakfast, After it, I helped her with her luggage downstairs from my fourth floor flat to a waiting taxi. We expensively hugged as the taxi metre was running. As we parted she planted a kiss on my lips. She said it was for all the others we managed to avoid.
Over the next few months, Helene and I would occasionally email each other, but I had the feeling in her correspondence that she was relieved that nothing had happened between us, happy that she had returned to Paris having had a meaningful encounter but not a messy one. I suppose I was relieved too. A few weeks after her leaving, I started seeing someone who was managing a cinema cafe that had recently opened in the city. She had come up from London after working for ten years as a financial lawyer, sold the flat she had managed to secure a mortgage on when she was twenty-one. Saving up and selling up gave her the chance to do what she had wanted to do since leaving school: own a cinema/cafe. She couldn't have afforded to do it in London; a friend recommended she come to Edinburgh. Of course I saw echoes of Helene's life choices in Jenny's. I wondered if we can be attracted to people not only because of who they are but because of the choices they make: that certain choices are attractive. I've known friends where women have left them, and I might wonder whether the women did so not because the men lacked ambition (though they might), but due to their inability to make choices, to make of their lives a decision.
What seemed odd was that I missed Helene but didn't at all pine for her. Perhaps meeting Jenny helped, but there was no sense in which I used her to recover from Helene's loss. Perhaps the threat was never from Helene: that her absence I was always capable of dealing with; what I had to protect myself from was the loss of my own identity. It was as though when we kissed as she left we had both confirmed who we were by refusing to consummate an affair that wouldn't have augmented our sense of self but debilitated it. That is at least how I would see it now.
About nine months after Helene returned to France, she asked if I wanted to come to an opening of her work in Paris in a couple of months' time. She said that it might seem an indulgence to invite me to see her exhibition, but I could make a week of it if I liked: a friend of hers could let me stay in her apartment while they were away. In a couple of our exchanges, I had mentioned Jenny to her, and she suggested I invite her too.
I had never talked of Helene to Jenny before: to do so would have been to generate insecurity without any sense of revelation, as I had to admit Jenny was not one for the nuances of consciousness. She was an atmosphere more than anything else, I found myself thinking, someone of small thoughts and quick actions. A few words about a visit to the Highlands would within an hour lead to a train being booked and a B and B arranged, and a few days later off we would go. I liked this quality in her, but I didn't love it, and perhaps consequently didn't love her either. I missed the conversations with Helene. We were, I suppose, all mouth and no action, but was that so bad?
Anyway, I said a few things about Helene, said I would like to go and see the exhibition: would she be interested? She checked the dates and said it would be impossible. There was an Italian film festival playing that week in the cinema. She had invited several filmmakers over. She would have to liaise with various restaurants and hotels; she should be around to sort these things out. I found it interesting that Jenny trusted me much more to go to Paris on my own than she trusted her employees to make the festival run smoothly.
So off to Paris I went. Helene's friend's place was in a square near Place de la Republique, next to a metro station whose name I can't recall, but where the main avenue was Boulevard Magenta. It was on the top floor, with plants on the stairs leading up to the front door of the apartment. Inside the floors were parquet with old, well-woven rugs that held firm on the wood surface. The walls were covered with shelves of books, and paintings, several of them Helene's. She had said nothing about who this friend happened to be, but I felt, after an hour in the flat, and without at all prying, this was the apartment of her ex-boyfriend, or another lover.
I tried to recall what she had said about her earlier love affairs while she was in Edinburgh, but nothing came to mind aside from the boyfriend. Apart from Helene, I had no friends in the city, and Helene was busy preparing for the exhibition in three days' time. We could have a couple of days together after that she said. I wandered through Paris and found it one of the loneliest places in which I have ever been. If Joe was conspicuously present in Edinburgh, he would have disappeared into the crowds of solitude I saw in the French capital. It wasn't only the homeless; it was also how others would wander the city or sit in cafes as if huddling in the warmth of the communal. I thought that I might miss Jenny while feeling the solitude of others, but I instead saw that I didn't love Jenny at all. She could do nothing, I believed, to protect me from my own loneliness, and knew that when I returned I would have to tell her we could not continue seeing each other. I could not say whether Jenny had the same needs as I did, but in the months that I had known her I sensed someone who needed companionship; what I seemed to need was shared solitude: the capacity of another to acknowledge the pain of being alone and wishing to assuage it. I wondered how many people in Paris had risked this need for another but were unwilling to sacrifice their necessary solitude as a consequence, ending with nothing. Maybe what happened to Joe was that he, at last, had found what he believed was the alleviation of that solitude with Rachael and had never recovered from his return to it. Perhaps.
I arrived at the exhibition half an hour after the time on the invitation and, seeing Helene immersed in a conversation with a couple of people, I started by looking at the paintings. I noticed there were a number of Joe, but it was as though it wasn't quite Joe either. It took me a moment to see that it was Joe in his features, but much more me in the gestures, but what was most strange was that they were portraits at all. I had never sat for her, and her knowledge of Joe couldn't have been based on many more sightings than when we were together. She did say that on our last night in Edinburgh she had seen him a couple of times on her own, but didn't indicate that she had observed him closely. Yet his features were very precisely captured and. I had to admit, so were my gestures too. It was as though Helene had started to take imaginary photographs also, and yet held to her notion of exposure time as well. I looked from the paintings across the room to Helene, who still hadn't seen me. I took the opportunity to look at her, to see her gestures, her facial expression, her movements as she moved from one painting to another, indicating I suppose to the couple she was talking to what she hoped to achieve in the work. I felt an immense affinity with her at that moment, with her paintings so near, her presence not far, and a sense that she had taken not only many imaginary photographs of me, but also of this figure who I was afraid I might become. As I was thinking this I saw coming towards her a man who in the way he greeted Helene was clearly her lover. I wondered if this was the man she was still seeing while she had been in Edinburgh, a new lover, or perhaps even an ex: could it have even been the person whose flat I happened to be staying in? I had a sudden and immense feeling that I had an important place in Helene's mind, but no place in her life. I did what I did that night at the party: I abruptly left.
The gallery was in a street off Oberkampf and I walked for twenty-five minutes back to the flat, gathered my belongings and decided to pay a surcharge on my plane ticket, flying back to Edinburgh the next day. I sent an email to Helene before leaving saying I thought the exhibition was wonderful, that I found it fascinating she had moved into portraits, that I would have liked to talk to her that evening but something had dragged me away: I would be leaving Paris the next morning. It is now three months later, I still haven't received a reply. I have long since broken up with Jenny. I still see Joe around the city, and while I don't feel my predicament is the same as his, I do nevertheless find myself taking mental photographs of him when I witness him from afar. He is I suppose, nothing more, and not a bit less than, a strong presence in my mind but not at all a presence in my life.
© Tony McKibbin