I've often wondered whether I didn't have that affair several years ago because I felt I was a moral person, or because I couldn't find the ethical wherewithal to justify the relationship to myself and the woman with whom I became so close. After all, couldn't I have continued a relationship with my long-term partner, Susan, at one remove considering she was out of the country for six months, and had a more immediate relationship with Florence who was in the country for only three? Was this retreat from the affair less a moral victory than a failure of ethical intelligence?
Three summers ago I was working in publicity for the Fringe festival in Edinburgh, whilst my partner was off travelling. We'd both given up marketing jobs in London, where we worked in the same firm, and where we shared the same flat. We decided the break shouldn't just be about work, nor even only about London, but about escaping even from each other. It would be good for the relationship we both decided. But the relationship, the sense of trust and faithfulness was, we assumed rather than explicated, to be respected. She went off in April, and in the same month I moved up to Edinburgh to take the job in the Fringe office on the High Street. There were only about six of us working in the back office and it wasn't until the others joined as the festival approached that a familial atmosphere developed. It was in this atmosphere, within a cosy intimacy, I could feel my interest in Florence, who had recently started working at the reception, turn into feelings of intensity. How intense I think I pinpointed in early July after Florence had been with us for several weeks. A large group of us were sitting in a cafe on the High Street and she walked in and introduced the group to a French man about her own age and a couple of years younger than me. Later on, as I got into conversation with the pair of them, I said something that assumed they were a couple, and Florence laughed lightly and said they were good friends, they had known each other since school. Her boyfriend, she said, was in France studying: she was in Scotland looking for fun. The relief I felt was of course disproportionate to my apparent casual interest, but obviously crystallized it in its full intensity.
When such a feeling makes itself present, perhaps we need to create an ethical system that can contain it without either denying the feeling or hypocritically acting upon it without in any way changing the values one purports to live by. How many affairs are conducted by people who still believe they - and the person they regard themselves generally to be - are intact, and the affair a moral aberration that is viewed at one remove: as a moment of weakness but seen from a position of general moral strength? How does one deny moral strength, a muscle bound morality, for an ethical suppleness? If I could have answered that question, or at least moved towards asking it, I might have been able to think more about being true to my feelings than betraying my partner.
Over the next six weeks Florence and I saw each other most evenings. We went to numerous plays together, the odd film and a couple of things at the book festival. Afterwards we would talk about what we'd seen with the sort of mutual credence that recalled the early months with Susan, but bared no resemblance to the intent we'd offered each other in more recent years.
Yet throughout this period I never made a pass at Florence, and maybe my assumption that if I had an affair would have developed is one I possess because it heightens the feelings of loss. But I think I can pinpoint two occasions where the assumption can be justified. The first lay in a visit to her flat after one of these theatre trips where she laid down on the couch in such a way that she somehow managed to reduce my sitting in the chair opposite to an act of frigidity. It wasn't that she was sexually provocative; but somehow emotionally revealing, revealing in the way that she relaxed her body whilst mine seemed to tense up. Most revealing of all, however, was one line I particularly remember when we started discussing relationships: "faithfulness is a matter of perspective," she said. It was a line, I now believe, that was not so much a come on or an entry point for an ethical discussion on love, but something in between, something that could have led into an affair of 'passionate rationality' - a comment she made on the second occasion which justifies my assumption.
This time we were in my flat, a flat undeniably more personal than the one she was sharing with two others; for mine was a studio apartment on the top floor of the Royal Mile, which had been freshly decorated before I'd moved in but after I'd accepted the flat: the landlady decorated it according to a number of suggestions I'd made. So there we were in an intimate environment making up some Pasta after the show we'd seen, and I think I must have asked her about the play, and so she offered the comment that she thought it was about 'passionate rationality.'
Was she offering a comment on the play, or a comment on the possibilities of a sexual relationship? Again, I think it was somewhere in between, and it was this in between-ness that I now feel was lost on me. I believe that she wanted to create a situation that did not mean she would leave her boyfriend nor that I would need to leave my partner, but that would simply be a relationship to exhaust curiosity and passion. Later on, as she stretched out on my sofa, kicking her shoes off and saying she wanted to sleep, I went into the bathroom cupboard, fetched a blanket and put it over her body, and looked at her face, her eyes now closed. I wanted to bend over and kiss her lips, but whatever impulse I had was countered by the significance upon which I would have been attaching the gesture: to betray my partner and instigate a new relationship that would have to replace the older one or temporarily and dishonestly superimpose itself upon the one with Susan. What I could not see was something else, an ethical possibility allowing me to have the best of both worlds.
Is that phrase, so often used to define the deluded or the hypocritical not humanly possible when the worlds don't quite collide? And had my body and mind not already accepted this separation of worlds when I felt relieved that Florence's French friend in Edinburgh was not her partner, and that her partner was in Paris?
I now think my inability to act upon the best of both worlds may have left me with a melancholia that suggests the worst of both worlds. After Edinburgh, after Susan's trip, Susan and I were back living in London, both doing marketing jobs in firm situated near each other, and would go to work on the same tube and often return on the same train. Sometimes when I would look at Susan's face, as we were eating dinner, I would catch something that hinted at the same melancholy I felt in myself. I don't want to call this look one of missed opportunities, partly because it's as if it was the thought that was missed rather than the event. I would sometimes wonder when looking across at her whether she also fell a little in love during her travels and remained faithful - for I'm sure she would have - because she couldn't formulate the ethical language to feel justified in acting upon her feelings.
And so I have returned in my mind on many occasions to those two evenings, the one spent in Florence's flat and the one in mine. I recall her sleeping, her body relaxed, as she lay on the couch in my flat, and the intimacy of her body language in her apartment. I think now, but didn't quite think then, that it was as if she understood intimacy as a state of calm in the company one feels comfortable with, over the state of rights one feels in the company of one we have responsibilities over and a history with.
I could simplify the problem and say that I was in love with Florence then and say that I continued being in love with her as I returned to London and once again started living with Susan. But that would be to put a name on something more ungraspable, for I believe that even if I would have traced Florence to some Parisian address that she gave me when she left, and to tell her I hadn't been able to get her out of my mind for three years, this wouldn't be any solution. The solution lay in the past, in the contingent situation as well as in the human being for whom I had such strong feelings. I went to Edinburgh with the sort of anticipation and expectation and escape from drudgery that demanded intense emotion, and those feelings were most completely projected upon Florence. It's as if what has happened is that the feelings have been sealed off, caught in that moment of past, and trying to make contact with Florence would, after returning to London, have been an act of emotional dishonesty.
I could have, I suppose, tried to pursue an affair with somebody else, but that would be, like getting in touch with Florence, too pre-conceived.
No, all I could do I realized was to end the relationship with Susan and wait and see if the anticipatory feelings that were there three years ago would replace the sad ones that were present when I returned to the capital. To stay with Susan, and for Susan to stay with me, I realized would be morally honest but ethically unfair. It might be true to all the social variables we had built up between family and friends, but be a vacuum in itself.
Perhaps this gets close to the difference I feel between morality and ethics, while also explaining why I believe I betrayed myself whilst being faithful to some abstraction. When Florence talked about 'faithfulness being a matter of perspective', I suppose she was expressing this idea of being faithful more to the moment than the abstraction that Susan had become while I was in Florence's company. For while I was with Florence, Susan had become less a person than a conscience, and did I then not resent Susan because I had cast her in this role, and did she then perhaps resent me because she cast me in the same role too?
There was of course a time when we were in each other's company, when we focused on each other's company, but shortly before we split up the imaginary was so often elsewhere that to continue the relationship seemed more dishonest than if one of us had had an affair behind the other's back. So much had become reduced to domesticity, to paying bills, to going shopping, to doing housework, that in preserving an existence over living a life we hadn't just foregone passion but were also in danger of losing the feelings of love. I recall reading a theorist once who differentiated between love and passion, that love was something between people, passion more about the intensity of feeling that had less to do with the subject than the moment, the way people live for the intensity of the experience over the intent of the relationship. What I think Florence wanted was this intensity of feeling with the rational comprehension that it would be an affair of passion contained by the acceptance of its short-term, provisional intent.
Did we not both go to Edinburgh to experience something temporary, did we not both create the desire for passion in separating from our partners, in going to a new city, in looking for fresh experiences? Out of this abstract intent, this intent without a subject, a specific passion developed, and it is this passion that I refused to acknowledge; and it's in this refusal to acknowledge these feelings that I fear I began to resent Susan - and she perhaps for similar reasons resented me.
But something happened recently, when we met up again to discuss who owns which items, that made me realize if Susan was faithful to me it might have been for a further abstraction, and yet with the hope of a more practical need. She mentioned the idea that some time soon she would like a child; that she was now seeing someone who himself wanted kids, and, who knows, in time, maybe they would have them. Of course, we'd talked about having kids before, but we'd both agreed that we didn't want any. This time, however, there was a hint of desperation that suggested Susan didn't just want a child but that she needed one, needed some transformative element in her life. I instinctively knew I felt the opposite. If she felt that being faithful to me meant in some way she was being faithful to something in her future, to this justifiable moral idea of love not only with me but for and with children, what was I thinking of?
It was this conversation that seemed to draw out more completely my sense of isolation and melancholia; whilst simultaneously making me recall once again this idea of passion and love and how inextricably connected they are to morality and ethics. For if I hadn't the ethical wherewithal to act passionately with Florence; I now realized I neither possessed at the time the moral necessity Susan may subconsciously have had to avoid the full demands of passion: that she wanted to start a family with a man she had been faithful to for years, and that fidelity would contribute to the stability of the family life we would embark upon. She probably understood her instincts much better than I understood mine. If I want a life of passion over love, a life of transient feeling over stable emotion, I have been hopelessly inept at creating a value system upon which to base such actions. But perhaps I have failed to do so not only out of a certain ethical ignorance, but maybe even more out of an emotional paradox that doesn't want commitment, but can't abide its absence as I felt a slight tension in my gut as she told me of this other man.
© Tony McKibbin