It is rarely true Brice believed that people are attracted to someone on the basis of their looks alone, and he felt this had never been better illustrated in his own life than when he met someone who resembled his ex-spouse, who was petite of height, with ringletted long black hair, an olive complexion that somehow never looked sallow even in a Scottish winter, and eyes that could look in wonder or stare in anger. Brice had been married to Cassandra for five years when she told him she was leaving. There may have been some justification in the departure; no excuse for the rapid exit. They had met a year before the wedding, knew each other too little yet perhaps desired each other too much, and decided that great sex was tantamount to great affection and had a small wedding with her parents and a handful of friends. Over the years they were together they could see that they had not so much little in common (many a relationship survives that), but that they were incompatible in almost every way outside of the bedroom and, after five years, make-up sex can be exhausting. They would argue about the weather: she was from a small French territory, Reunion, and loved the sun; Brice was from the south of Scotland and was happiest with overcast skies, even mild drizzle. She loved to talk and would look for a response, Brice could hold his silence for days at a time, it seemed, happy to offer a few words about what they might need from the shop, whether she would pass him the salt, or if she would like a cup of tea. She wanted to talk about her problems at work, her friends' problematic relationships and the fights she would have with her mother. He was usually happier solving problems rather than discussing them. To Brice, a problem was algorithmic: how to get traffic lights to work in conjunction with other traffic lights, for example, or how to get people to access the cheapest of flights. He was good at what he did and was employed by a smallish company in the Highlands and transferred after a couple of years to Edinburgh to work for a much bigger company there. Brice didn't do it out of ambition, but maybe out of its emotional opposite: he wanted a quiet life and Cassandra did not want to stay for too long in the Highlands of Scotland.
Brice is still working for the Edinburgh company, but Cassandra has long since left, returning to Reunion and to the mother she would argue with, and to an ex she said she despised, but with a passion that suggested whatever feelings she had they had nothing to do with indifference. Brice was hurt, angry and about as voluble as he had ever been inclined to get. They argued for two weeks before she left: those two weeks after she booked her ticket and said she was returning to Reunion and before she got on the plane. Brice drove her to the airport in an act of goodwill that was full of ill will. He drove silently, yet for possibly the first time in his life with no wish for silence. There were words waiting to gush out of him and tears of pain and frustration that might have accompanied them. He kept them to himself, sublimating the tension into abrupt gear shifts, overtaking cars and taking corners more sharply than necessary. He was sure when he pulled up at the airport a few people would have heard tires screeching. It was his own fault, she said, getting out of the car and thanking him for the lift, wrestling with her own luggage in a gesture of independence, though he expected the other man would be at the airport in Reunion to make life immediately easier.
It was at work that Brice met Cassandra's look-alike. He couldn't have denied when she first walked into the office that his concentration wasn't only broken but that his adrenaline picked up too. He was momentarily certain that he was seeing in his midst the mists of time, and sure enough at lunch a couple of colleagues, Mark and Manuel, said at first they thought they had seen Cassandra, only to realise on meeting Melanie that she was a very different person with a very similar face and figure. It was the first time these colleagues who had met Cassandra at a number of work events as well as socially on a few other occasions, expressed their reservations about Cassandra, revealing it in their enthusiasm for the newcomer. It wasn't that they found Melanie more beautiful, it would seem, but that her personality was so much warmer and unaffected than Cassandra's. Yet though Melanie and Brice became friends he believed he was impervious to her appeal, as though he was protected by replication far more than by allusiveness: someone who somehow reminds us of an earlier loved one will he believed be much more likely to attract us than someone so directly resembling our prior love object. During the two years she worked in the office Brice and Melanie would sometimes go out for lunch, often with others for drinks after work, and occasionally on their own. During this period her boyfriend was in Oxford, and each weekend she would visit him or vice versa.
It was a few months after she left Edinburgh to live with her boyfriend in London, where they both managed to find work in the city, that Brice started seeing Gillian. She looked nothing like Cassandra and while Cassandra could never look plain, Gillian would pass unnoticed unless she wore clothes that brought out her figure, and make-up which brought out her features. She was naturally very pretty but not at all naturally stunning. There are some women who are clearly not even beautiful, Brice believed, but they are stunning: they cannot but carry themselves with authority or a sense of seduction, cannot walk into a room without a few looks drawn their way. It is probably an energy more than a beauty and some women never lose it even if they lose what people would usually call their looks. They might suffer horribly from this fact as people will still turn to look at them and then look away in disappointment, as if the observers expected great beauty and were met with its ruin. Cassandra may well become one of those women, Brice thought, because men had always looked at her and always would: seeing in her not just the attractiveness that was unequivocal but the aura that would not disappear. One evening when Gillian and Brice were talking about their past relationships she asked if she could see a photograph of Cassandra. Brice showed her a couple reluctantly, and was relieved she didn't seem to react jealously at all. Yet a couple of months later they were in a cafe. Brice was looking blankly in the distance when Gillian nudged him with her elbow and said staring was rude. His blank look had been directed at space but what he hadn't noticed was the waitress walking into it. It looked like he was staring at her. Afterwards, Gillian said she knew why he was staring at the waitress: she looked a little like Cassandra. It hadn't occurred to him, but it wasn't an unfair observation, even if the idea that he was staring at her happened to be. Brice regretted that he had shown her the photos, and regretted it much more when six months afterwards Melanie returned to Edinburgh, got in contact and they arranged to meet up. She was returning to the company.
She looked a lot more like Cassandra than the waitress, and Brice realised if he were to remain friends with Melanie he would need to keep her away from Gillian. This was duplicitous of course but he didn't feel it was for anything but the best of motives. Gillian would have been jealous of someone who looked so much like his ex-wife, yet Melanie didn't deserve to be rejected as a friend by Brice because of Gillian's likely behaviour. He still didn't believe he was attracted to Melanie, and partly what he liked about her was that she could remind him of Cassandra safely. He would look at her and see Cassandra's features but would not feel the pull of her personality and, during the next nine months when Melanie and Brice would meet up for a coffee usually around once a week, sometimes with others, sometimes on their own, he would even say, perhaps jokingly, perhaps flirtatiously, she helped him eradicate any residual feelings of desire that he happened to have for Cassandra. And Brice did believe he was equally safe for her: a man she could talk to about her problems with other men. She had returned to Edinburgh after breaking up with her partner: it turned out to be a relationship that benefited from a distance - the infidelities were harder to hide when they were living together. She said it with more anger than sorrow, and the anger was mainly towards herself. Over her first few months back in Edinburgh, she had a couple of liaisons with others that she would tell Brice about. Neither of the men was of much use she said, without quite telling him whether that meant they were hopeless in bed or hopeless relationship material, or perhaps both.
Of course over time Brice felt he was keeping something from Gillian, that he had become duplicitous indeed, but he would usually meet Melanie over lunch, after work for a coffee, and never at the weekend, never at any time that might suggest he was prioritising her over Gillian, even if it was the case, and had also been the case with Cassandra, that he had prioritised other things over her - just never people. Brice was, after all, a keen climber, hill walker and runner and yet would go out with people who were not. Most of the time this hadn't been cause in itself for much consternation, going for a fifteen mile run on a Sunday afternoon needn't leave anyone feeling too lonely in Brice's absence, but at least once a month, and sometimes every fortnight when the weather was good, he would get into the car and drive north, devoting the weekend to bagging a few Munros. Cassandra had come on a couple of occasions perhaps to prove that she was capable of climbing a hill while at the same time making clear she couldn't think of an activity much more pointless. While Gillian was keen to join him, the few occasions she did Brice couldn't quite hide his irritation at how slow she was and thus relieved when she said he should go on his own. Though Brice knew, since Melanie had returned to Edinburgh, that she went to the gym regularly, it wasn't until quite recently she had told him what she liked best was the treadmill: that she would run a 5K in around twenty minutes (she admitted she had been a former school champion), feeling it was the run rather than cycling, rowing etc in the gym where she felt she had really worked out. Before Brice had the chance to think about it he had already asked her if she wanted to join him for a run at the weekend. She said she hadn't been on a long run for some months, but if the pace was gentle, then why not?
Afterwards, back at his desk, thinking about the run with Melanie, Brice knew he had crossed a line and it wasn't a finishing one, or perhaps it might become so if he wasn't careful. Later he sent her an email saying they could meet at the top of the mid-meadow walk, run down it and out towards Newington, round by Blackford Hill and the back of Morningside, going their separate ways from there. He felt as he said it more conniving and yet also more loyal: he was keeping the contact within the confines of the run, even if he was doing so only partly out of fidelity towards Gillian. Was it not also to make sure that it felt safest to meet and part in the process of the run itself? When on Sunday morning Gillian said she was popping out to the bakery and would Brice like a Croissant as well as bread, she added if he was going for a run later. It might have seemed like a non sequitur, but Gillian knew that if he were to have a croissant too it meant a run was likely: the extras calories necessary for a long afternoon jog. He said he would indeed, feeling a little guilty as he said it, and no less so fifteen minutes later after eating eat the croissant with a fresh coffee he had made while Gillian was at the shop.
As they were finishing, Melanie said the pace was just right for her and it was great that he provided some impetus in getting her back into longer runs. He would probably be going the following Sunday he said - she should join him. During the week they met a couple of times for lunch alongside some other colleagues but talked just themselves about the run that they did and the one that they would do that coming Sunday. Brice suggested a different route that would take a little longer. He said they could go out by the canal, along by Colinton Village, through the dale and turn off before they got to Juniper Green. She said that would be great, though it had taken her a couple of days before the mild ache in her calves and thighs faded. As they talked he could see one of their colleagues look at him, the look that indicated a particular kind of jealousy, and a particular kind of approbation. It was Mark, who had of course known Cassandra a little and had met Gillian a couple of times. It was a look that indicated both that he wished he had been in Brice's place and reckoned Melanie was in Cassandra's. It was about as complex a look of jealousy as anybody was likely to encounter, and perhaps Brice should have read in it the complexity of his own feelings.
Over the next four Sundays, Melanie and Brice went for a run, each time increasing the mileage perhaps to see how much they could improve their fitness, but no less he supposed to extend the amount of time they could spend together. Brice still would have insisted he was not attracted to Melanie and would have explained it thus. Though Melanie and Cassandra's personalities were not at all alike, what he was still seeing in Melanie's visage was an aspect of his own trauma in Cassandra leaving. It was not Melanie's fault, but it was Brice's salvation, he believed. He had no interest in cheating on Gillian, and the friendship with Melanie he realised reminded him of a friend he had while at university. Joseph and Brice would both take their lunch break at the same time while working in the computer lab during their final year at Stirling Uni, and when they realised they both liked running, each weekend they would run up the steep hill behind the uni around by Sherrifmuir. It was what Brice would call a habitual friendship: he never really got to know Joseph beyond the time they would spend together, which would usually consist of going for a drink once a week at the sports bar along with a few others, lunch also once a week after a lecture they would both attend, and the run. During the term break, they were not in contact at all, and after university they did not arrange to remain in touch. Equally, during the time Melanie was in the south Brice had no contact with her and would feel again that if she were to join another company, move to another city, the friendship would dissolve.
Nevertheless, he still didn't tell Gillian about Melanie, realising that it wasn't only the physical similarities between her and Cassandra. It was also that he had said to Gillian on numerous occasions when they initially started seeing each other that one reason why Cassandra and Brice had broken up was that they didn't have enough in common - they lacked the habitual. It was as if he had to convince Gillian of her importance to him, and the irrelevance of Cassandra, on the basis of how little Cassandra and Brice would eventually do together. But there he was happily and habitually doing things with another woman who looked so much like his ex. If she were to see them together how could Brice claim his innocence, except to say that the thought of sex with Cassandra would still generate in him erotic longing; no such thought manifested itself towards Melanie. His honesty would demand cruelty and shift Gillian's insecurities back towards Cassandra. Some might insist Brice should have stopped seeing Melanie altogether, but would that have been morally fair? Melanie hadn't at all been flirtatious even if she knew that she resembled his ex, and would always ask about Gillian without in any way indicating she was in competition with her or that she ought to meet her.
But Brice was not so sure that he didn't enjoy the duplicity he was practising even if there seemed no sexual desire in the deed. He knew he looked forward to the weekend run with Melanie more than the Saturday night cinema outing and restaurant meal with Gillian. Perhaps it sounds like he shouldn't have been with Gillian at all, but Brice could say that he never felt so comfortable around another person, and nobody else with whom he could imagine a future with. He knew when he came home from work that she would be cooking up a meal that always smelt appealing as Brice walked through the door. She loved to cook, she would say, and the repertoire was broad, nutritious and offered tastes and smells that had previously been unfamiliar to him. She would use lots of cumin, cinnamon and turmeric, fresh mint, parsley, coriander and basil, ginger and garlic. Dishes that he thought he had tasted before would be simply delicious instead of just tasty. Brice recalled having a Shatshuka in a restaurant that was a couple of eggs in a tomato sauce. Gillian's was the same dish but it could hardly have gone under the same name so superior was it. She would make vegan, gluten-free chocolate cakes that tasted better than any sugared cakes he had eaten elsewhere, and an apple strudel with the finest of homemade filo pastry, full of walnuts, stewed apple, lots of cinnamon and a touch of clove. They planned in two or three years to move out of Edinburgh and perhaps to Skye, opening up a Bed and Breakfast that would also serve evening meals made by Gillian. It would give you the chance to live in nature she would say, and for her to live in the kitchen. It might sound chauvinistic to say this was their dream - Brice on the hills; her by the stove - but these were dreams they had that were not the same but were very reconcilable. She knew the job she had managing a charity shop was enjoyable and not unmeaningful, but it was not the future; and nor was Brice's working in IT, no matter the problems he liked to solve.
Perhaps he enjoyed Melanie's company partly because he saw it as so safe; that had he been attracted to her Brice would have feared it might jeopardize his and Gillian's future, while he believed it was a respite from it, a bit like flirting on a stag night a month or so before the wedding day. Yet Brice knew he was taking a risk indeed when he told Melanie about a forthcoming Bank Holiday weekend where he intended to head up to Aviemore, book into a hostel or Bed and Breakfast, and take in a few hills. Melanie said she would love to come, saying it in such a casual and spontaneous way that Brice instantly said she should join him. He would have said the same to any male friend who had shown a similar interest, but then no male friend looked like his ex-wife. Over the next ten days before going he wondered how he could tell Melanie that it wouldn't be such a good idea. It should have been easy to say to her that a weekend away with another woman would feel very duplicitous, even if there was clearly no suggestion that Brice was attracted to her. He realised he could not tell her that he wasn't attracted, as if whatever dynamic had developed between them had been based less on a lack of desire on his part, than on the simple fact that he was already in a relationship. Of course, she must have assumed he found her attractive: she looked like his ex, and just as Cassandra would receive frequent compliments, so Brice knew Melanie did also. She was more discreet than Cassandra, less inclined to dress in a manner that would all but insist on a remark offered, but she received them nevertheless.
Thus Brice went off on a weekend with another woman, doing so because he couldn't tell her that though he wasn't attracted to her he would have suspected his partner would have thought he was, and that explaining all this to her was too complicated and best avoided. And so there they were, travelling instead to the Highlands together in her four-wheel drive. She suggested picking him up at the house, indicating she assumed Brice would have told Gillian who he was going to the Highlands with. He said she could pick him up at the office, he would be in early doing a little work and would take his things with him. This was the least dishonest aspect of all: Brice did indeed have work to do and knew he would be unlikely to finish it before 530 on Friday when the office closed. Quite a few people would work overtime when it was open Saturday from 8 till 1. He said to Melanie he would be free by 1030. That Friday evening he told Gillian he would be in the office for a couple of hours before venturing up north, saying he wouldn't need the car and could leave it at the office and she could pick it up if she needed it at all. She rarely turned up at the office when his colleagues were there, having remarked a couple of times that these were people who would have known Cassandra, and said it in a voice so small that instead of seeing in it jealousy, Brice saw in it a tender retreat from the world.
So there he was in the Highlands with Melanie, enjoying a hillwalking trip that consisted of getting a long walk in on Saturday afternoon, and out onto the hills by 730 on the Sunday, back around 6 for a drink in the pub that always managed a nice commingling of locals and visitors, and then dinner in the pub restaurant. After the first local referred to them as a couple neither of them immediately denied it; and spent the rest of the weekend pretending they were, without doing anything that might suggest betrayal on his part: it was a harmless way of avoiding having to explain themselves. When they got talking to the hotel porter and a couple of his friends on Sunday evening, the porter, who was by now well merry and had thrown a few flattering remarks in Melanie's direction, asked why they had booked separate rooms. They looked at each other wondering how they would get out of this one, laughed, wondering why they had even claimed to be a couple in the first place, before Brice replied that they were very serious walkers and fortunate enough to have money to spare. The three of them, all males in their mid-twenties, looked blankly, so he continued, with a side glance to Melanie, by saying that they had the unfortunate habit of getting a little too touchy-feely when they shared a bed and decided that their love for each other shouldn't intrude on their love for hill walking. Hence not only separate beds but separate rooms. They looked at Brice with an envy that recalled the looks he would sometimes get from colleagues at work as Cassandra would visit him in the office wearing an outfit that raised, he had thought vulgarly, probably more than just a few eyebrows. Brice recalled then, however, feeling anxious, as though any pair of those eyes could get their hands on her. He believed that Cassandra could have left him at any time. It wasn't that he wanted to possess her; but didn't everyone have with a loved one a need for security, for assuming that the person with whom they walk into a room, a pub, a party, with, will also leave it with them? Brice never had that basic security with Cassandra, and there he was with Melanie, feeling however paradoxically that this was exactly what he had, even if there was nothing at all to stop her going off with one of these three men, none of whom were that much younger than Melanie, a single woman, happened to be. There he was sitting with a pint in his hand, Melanie by his side, and three men looking across the table at them. Brice was enjoying the pleasure of not so much Melanie's company, though good company it happened to be, as the pleasure of being seen in Melanie's company without any of the anxiety he had often felt in Cassandra's. By the end of the evening, they were both well inebriated and continued a conversation in her hotel room that they had started earlier that day on the hills. She admitted she still missed her ex and was a little worried that she was using Brice to avoid dealing with the pain more directly. It felt safe but somehow exploitative, and she wondered whether she wasn't so much feeling guilty towards Brice as towards his partner.
Had Brice told her that he was walking with a colleague at work, had he told her it was a colleague who supposedly looked like his ex-wife? It was the first time Melanie had so directly referenced her look-alike status, an elephant in the room that was no longer in the room when Brice found himself in hers. He said he hadn't said anything to Gillian, and admitted he knew that Melanie meeting her wouldn't have been unproblematic. But as she had mentioned missing her ex-boyfriend so she had given him the opportunity to say that he had invited her up north as he would any friend who wanted to get out of the city and take in the hills. It was true, Brice admitted, that Gillian wouldn't have been happy that he was going with someone who looked like his ex-wife, but he had convinced himself that though of course, the woman in front of him at the moment was very beautiful, she was not a threat to Gillian. During this absurd conversation Brice then tried explaining to Melanie why this was so, and talked for fifteen minutes about the difficulties he had with Cassandra, and the ease with which he could be in Melanie's company and somehow feel that the beauty Cassandra offered complicatedly, was being offered to him now without complications at all. When they were sitting in the pub, he said, and people were looking at them as if they were a couple, he was happy with the misapprehension, happier in his state of mind than he had often been when sitting with Cassandra. Cassandra and he might have been a couple but it rarely felt like they were; getting married was probably his way of trying to feel that they could be.
Over the next hour, they talked a little more about Cassandra, and also about Melanie's ex. She said that what he was saying chimed with how she felt about her partner: that she never felt very secure with him; just as Brice had married Cassandra to feel that security, so she had moved down to London hoping to feel more secure too, believing that it was the pair of them living apart which generated this feeling within her. She discovered this wasn't so, had a job that she enjoyed half as much as the one she had previously, and thus moved back up to Edinburgh. As they finished talking, he made a cup of instant coffee from the sachets that were in the room and with the mini kettle on the desk. He looked around the space at the standardized features evident in other hotel rooms he had stayed in throughout the country. The navy blue carpet, red curtains, red and blue chairs, blocks of colour that made the room as neutral as possible. He thought just then that, at least, his encounter with Melanie was far from standardized. Yet he knew if he were to try to kiss her at that moment he wouldn't only be risking his relationship with Gillian and his friendship with Melanie, he would also be falling into a clich and perhaps also an abyss. How often have friends of opposite sexes hung out together and ended up in bed together? But he also and more importantly believed at that moment to try and kiss Melanie would be somehow an attempt to get back with Cassandra: that emotionally he would be creating a conflation that wouldn't easily be resolved.
That night after Brice went back to his room, he had not so much dreams as feelings which no doubt had images to them but, by the time he had woken up, no images came to mind and he was left with a vulnerable unease. He had sensed over the two years he had been with her that his loyalty was to Gillian, yet up until that moment when Brice awoke he had believed that loyalty was a social one and an anticipatory one: Gillian was the woman to whom he owed allegiance and the woman with whom he could see a future. What he hadn't quite seen was how much that his desire for Cassandra was still evident, but when he would think consciously of that desire it would quickly fade, She was long gone and, even if she came back, they would have had little to share except the arguments they would often embark upon, with any future they might discuss unlikely to lead to any sort of agreement. Yet there he had been with Melanie, in her hotel room, feeling an affinity he never had with Cassandra and could find most fruitfully with Gillian in the future rather than in the present. It was as if he hadn't been attracted to Melanie because of his useless fixation on his ex-wife, and his dutiful need to be fair to Gillian. He knew that he might have to part from his girlfriend, but knew also that whatever designs he might have on Melanie were doodles on the margins of his affection for his ex, and there was nothing to suggest Melanie would want to reciprocate it anyway.
The next day they were both hungover and Melanie looked like she had no desire to talk, about the previous night or anything else for that matter. She drove back down to Edinburgh in a silence that would have been much more awkward if it didn't have post-inebriation as an excuse. But as they stopped off near Perth at a service station, as they drank strong tea and shared a veggie breakfast and some extra toast, she was ready to say a few words. She said that though nothing happened she reckoned she had crossed a line. She shouldn't have invited him to her room, and couldn't imagine what Gillian would think if she were to find out. Any further friendship, she said, had to be based on her getting to know Gillian. Brice thought about the three options available to him. To stop being friends with Melanie, to end his relationship with his partner, or to allow them to meet. Brice reckoned the latter option would be tantamount to the second one and its bravery might really be a deeper form of cowardice. He was sure he would break up with Gillian but did not want to do what Cassandra had done to him: he didn't want to make it abrupt or suggest she was to blame.
Brice arrived back to the flat in the mid-afternoon, knowing Gillian wouldn't be home until after six: she hadn't got the Monday off. But he didn't only find that she wasn't there, he also found a long note on the table, explaining that she had gone in to pick up the car, but also went into the office. There she talked with Mark who had, she said, inadvertently revealed that he was in the Highlands with someone from work, and she worked out it was not a man. Brice wondered how this could have happened and assumed Melanie had mentioned it to someone, and perhaps to Mark. No reason why she wouldn't have: it hadn't been any kind of secret for her. At the end of the note, Gillian said she expected him to vacate the flat by the end of the week; other things could be arranged thereafter. His first thought was relief that she hadn't seen Melanie and now probably never would. It was oddly as though his secret was safe, even if he couldn't explain exactly what the nature of that secret happened to be, and not least because it was one that remained still half-hidden from his own psyche. Maybe this is where he wished it to remain, aware, somehow, that this episode went beyond his desire to be with anyone in particular and said something to him about his desire in general. Brice may have said that he refused to believe that we are attracted by looks alone, but maybe our physical archetypes go beyond our usual assumptions about physical attractiveness and find themselves part of our subconscious make up. It would seem that Gillian knew Brice better than he knew himself when she showed signs of jealousy towards a waitress who happened to look a little like Cassandra; what sort of denial was he practising when he was unable to see that he couldn't escape this archetype no matter how much his conscious thoughts tried to indicate otherwise? Somehow Cassandra was right to leave him, and Melanie would be mad to go out with him, and all because they would, perhaps, be too close to perfection.
© Tony McKibbin