When I was around twenty two I worked in a youth hostel as a night porter and it might have been the moment in my life where chance possessed a meaning I will probably never understand. I had been working in the hostel for a couple of weeks when I picked up the paper the day porter had left as I started the shift and saw the police had seized a man suspected of a series of killings in the Lothian region. I recognized the man as someone who had booked into the hostel a few days after I had started working there, though I didn't recall the name. The story covered the first three pages of the national newspaper. There was also short piece on the French foreign legion whose headline captured my attention, but that I didn't get round to reading at the time.
The main story reported that the suspected serial killer's name was Derek Conrad, that he lived in Glasgow but often worked in Edinburgh and was employed in computing. He was known to have a high IQ and a low tolerance threshold for stupidity: a couple of other workers commented on how he had lost his temper with them for nothing more than an inability to comprehend straight away requests he had made. He had no brothers and sisters, his father had died when he was fifteen, and his mother was now in her late seventies. He was forty. Of course the report claimed he had no friends. A picture showed him with a high forehead, exacerbated by a receding hairline, and a smile that looked more manic than pleasing.
Yet I recalled the smile as warm and ironic, as we had chatted for a couple of hours by the bay window in front of the enclosed office with me on the sofa and Derek in one of the comfy chairs. It would have been around one when he came in as I was sitting on the couch with a book and he had asked what I was reading. I said it was a book on philosophy. He asked by whom; I replied Pascal. He had never read him, he admitted, but in such a way that he had obviously read numerous other philosophers, and I asked if he would like to sit down. I didn't ask him what he did or why he was staying at the hostel, and after reading the story in the paper I suppose I realized I wasn't much of a night porter professionally but maybe more so existentially. A proper night porter would surely have mused over why a person with a Scottish accent was staying in a youth hostel and didn't have a home to go to; he would have enquired into why the man had been drinking alone, as he claimed, or whether he had work the next morning, as it happened to be a week night. I should have observed norms and deviations, enquired not into the mind of this interesting man who sat opposite me, but into his social standing, purpose and mental well-being. I was on the other hand a little like a shop security guard who admires the cut of someone's coat but doesn't notice that the pockets are deep enough to drop numerous small objects into them inconspicuously. Yet I'm not so sure if that night I might, in a very roundabout and completely accidental way, have saved someone's life.
I had taken the hostelling job after leaving university prematurely, and after working the summer in the south of France in a bar that belonged to the father of a friend from uni: the two us worked there together. My B-Grade higher French didn't help too much when taking the orders of the locals, and for much of the time I felt that Fabrice was working for two. After five weeks I said that if he could find someone else then I would vacate the position and take the money I had made, and travel for the remaining five weeks of my stay in France. I'd been living in the flat above the bar with Fabrice, and taken my meals in the workplace; I had spent almost nothing. I knew that if I lived frugally, staying in hostels and occasionally camping if necessary (I had taken my tent both as a precautionary measure and with the intention of camping for a few days at the end of the trip), I would have enough money to survive till I returned to Scotland. Fabrice tried to persuade me to stay, but I asked him to put an advert up in the bar asking for staff, and if he got a reply, and the person seemed reliable, then he should give them the job.
He agreed, and within three days a local nineteen year old enquired after the post. I saw that she possessed the sort of qualities a bar person is expected to have: not only of course a grasp of the language, but also a demeanour that can carry a joke as readily as several beers, and can still charm the customers at midnight, knowing that she'll be throwing them out around one. She wasn't beautiful, but she was robust, and clearly confident sexually: her hemline was an inch too short, her cleavage conspicuous. As she came in several of the regulars took note, and Fabrice seemed equally and instantly to have recognized her charms. She had the job. Indeed, she could have been Fabrice's sister in manner and look. They both seemed like winners, a term I hated almost as much as the word loser, but I couldn't pretend they were empty terms, and I often mused over them in situations where I had failed.
I had dropped out of the psychology degree after two years, while Fabrice was likely to leave with a First. Yet one reason why I didn't like words like winners and losers was that with each ostensible defeat I felt I was getting closer to a certain type of personal victory: to eliminating the unnecessary from my life and replacing it with something more essential. The psychology textbook we often worked from would probably have said I was doing no more than offering an ego defence mechanism and I even had a few to choose from. Was I intellectualizing failure by looking at it in cold abstract terms, was I rationalising things by trying to explain away why I had given up on the degree, or was my taking the job in France, for example, a form of sublimation: an attempt to turn any loss of respect I received for dropping out into social approval by trying to master French in the south of France? Or was I in denial, since I could not pretend that one reason I went abroad was to forget a classmate who had ended the relationship before I gave up the degree?
Perhaps all the terms were valid, yet I reckoned there was a validity beyond the readily psychological and I agreed much more with a philosopher who reckoned the most important thing was to avoid making false moves. Denial, sublimation and intellectualisation may have been all very well for explaining socially what I was doing, but there are parts of us that I suspect have reasons that reason cannot know.
I knew the camping sites in the area I was staying in were expensive, since the village wasn't far from St Tropez, and decided to save money immediately; instead of taking a minibus the six or so miles to the nearest but station at the roundabout outside the town, I decided to walk to the station and then get a bus to Toulon, and head either inland or in the direction of the Atlantic coast. The walk finally was probably less about saving money, though, than a little gesture of purposefulness after losing the job.
The weather was around twenty seven degrees, and the rucksack heavier than I recalled, and after a mile I thought I might get on the next bus that passed. I occasionally stuck my thumb out hoping to hitch a lift, but Fabrice had warned me that it was rare for people to stop. It was shortly after that though where I saw a man with what looked like a much heavier rucksack a few hundred yards in front of me. I was walking at a faster pace, however slow, and after five minutes I caught up with him, As I came up alongside him I asked in French where he was going, and he wondered whether I spoke English. I said I was Scottish and he replied in English that he was Romanian.
As we walked he told me that he had been walking from Bucharest, and his journey would soon be complete. He said he was joining the foreign legion in Toulon. He had been walking for weeks, only occasionally receiving lifts, and left Romania with two hundred and fifty Euros and still had about ninety left. He walked through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, all through the north of Italy, and here he was in France. I didn't ask him if he had a visa, didn't even know if I really believed he was going to join the foreign legion: it was as though all that I needed to assume was that he had walked so many miles, and that it made my own irritation with the heat and the weight of my rucksack irrelevant. He told me about his adventures: that he got drunk in a basement nightclub in Serbia on less than five Euros, that he went back to a girl's place and stayed there for five days, and she wouldn't take a penny from him, and cooked for him every night. In Ljubljana he stayed for a week: a band from an anarchist organization was doing a gig the night he arrived, and some people in the square asked him if he wanted to go. He stayed in a squat and only left when he thought he might not make his interview with the legion.
I said goodbye to him as I stopped at the bus shelter, and watched him as he kept walking in the direction of Frejus where he had said he might treat himself to a train ride. I watched this seventeen year old whose name I didn't even know and who didn't so much have his future ahead of him - we all have that ahead of us - but a capacity to absorb its contingencies. He knew how to live, the best I could do was to know how to listen.
The remaining five weeks of my trip I stayed mainly in Montpellier. I managed to get a room to myself in the hostel, and the porter, who looked about thirty five and handsome if long-term sleep deprived, said that I was very lucky. A person who had booked the room for six weeks left earlier that day having only stayed for three. I asked why they had booked for so long and left so soon. He believed she was a student from Paris who was intending to devote the summer to a project on Montpellier. Then something happened in her family, he said, and shrugged his shoulders. I don't know why but I assumed she was beautiful: there was so little empathy in his gesture, and yet obviously there had been curiosity in his enquiring about her motives, that I suspected it was someone whom he hoped to seduce. That the opportunity was dashed was more important than the reason why it happened to be.
So I booked the room for the remaining period of my stay, deciding that apart from the occasional trip to Nimes, Avignon and other towns nearby, I would devote my days to sitting in cafes, walking around, going to galleries, to the cinema, getting to know other people staying in the hostel, and maybe people from Montpellier itself. I wondered about the girl who has suffered some family tragedy. I mused over what her project was and that here I happened to be in some way occupying not only her room, but also occupying myself in a much more aimless manner than she would have done.
Occasionally I would go out for a drink with others from the hostel, and a couple of times I went to a club. But I hated dancing, didn't much like drinking, and had never pulled a girl in my life. Even Julia wasn't pulled; she was intrigued, and said that I managed to get her into my force-field: a term she understood more than as a metaphor. She was a physics undergrad who also took classes in psychology. She once insisted that she wanted to do her PhD on what charisma happened to be; the various forms that it took, and how much physics had to say about it. She said what interested her was that I wasn't one for encroaching upon territory, so that any charm I possessed couldn't really fall under a general notion of seduction. She said I was one of the most still people she had ever met, which didn't mean I wouldn't move around a lot - I swam and cycled - but that I seemed full of a strange sort of stillness that others might have taken to be inertia. Throughout the five months we were together, whatever we did, whether it was going to the cinema, for meals out, for long walks around the Pentland hills, she still felt this impassivity was there. She left me, saying that she couldn't explain why but that she felt stifled, and when we met up a couple of months after that, shortly before my trip to France, she said that I had made no attempt to get her back, no effort to seduce her with a slightly different way. I told her I couldn't be that lacking in initiative; wasn't I soon to go to France, hadn't I dropped out of my degree? She reckoned that leaving university a year before graduating might have been radical if I had been in a hurry to live a different life. She suspected France was the least resistant path; and that I would probably fall into my usual habits of reading, wandering around and people watching as soon as I was there.
What she said no doubt came out of a mixture of resentment and residual pain, but also I believe out of the sort of astuteness that would serve her well in that PhD on charisma she would eventually write. In France I had indeed fallen into all the habits she predicted for me, and I often wondered what this stillness consisted of; what did it mean, and was it at all useful?
A few days after I arrived in Montpellier, the very young woman who intended to stay in the room that I had taken arrived. How did I know? One morning I overheard a conversation as I came down the stairs, where the porter was saying that the room she had booked into had been taken but there were a few dorm beds available. She explained that she needed her own space to work in and that wouldn't be possible if she were sharing with seven other people. He said that he would talk to me about it as he looked up and saw me, and I instinctively said that I would love to be of help but that I had taken the room for a month and didn't want to move around, either to another room, another hostel or another town. I'm sure Julia would have seen my remark coming out of the inertia she insisted upon seeing, but I think it also came out of a protective streak towards another. I could see the porter was trying to do her a favour, and looked like the sort of man who would pester her into rewarding him for his kindness. I'm not suggesting that he would have molested her, but recalling the way he talked about her before, and the manner in which he leaned forward over the counter to her then, my instinct for self-preserving inertia was matched by I believed protecting someone else also.
It was later that morning when I was in a cafe that I looked across and noticed she was sitting there reading a book and that she had with her the small backpack I saw her with earlier in the hostel. I recalled the porter saying before that she was from Paris, and I wondered whether she would go all the way back home after assuming that the room she thought she still had was gone. I felt I needed to explain myself, and went over to her table and apologized. She said she wouldn't have given the room up to anybody either; and that she happened to be passing through on her way back to Paris. She said that her grandmother had died in a town that I worked out was not far from where Fabrice's pub happened to be. I asked why she had wanted to stay so long in Montpellier, and she said that she was looking to find a small city where she could devote about five weeks to sketching the place. She was someone who had studied photography and also fine art and was fascinated by the problem of the index and the icon, she said, invoking a philosopher whose name she mentioned but whom I'd never read. She said she wanted her drawings to be more lifelike than her photography, and what she hoped to do was go somewhere for five weeks and capture the city abstractly in photographs and as concretely as she could in drawings. She said she needed a small city: one small enough to capture, and yet large enough to indicate some variety.
I proposed to her Edinburgh, a university town with a smallish population, and in many ways it seemed to me what Montpellier was to France, Edinburgh was to Britain. She said she might just try it. Her English was obviously good enough: most of the conversation had been conducted in English, only a little in French. Her name was Sylvie.
As we parted and she went to catch her train, and after an hour looking at the face that was as beautiful as the porter implied, I noted her walk. She walked with the confidence of one who had the future ahead of her and not at all the past behind her. It was perhaps why I was surprised that after about fifty metres, as she was about to enter the station, she turned round and waved. I was still sitting in my chair at the caf, and I waved back.
That hour's conversation with someone whose name I didn't even know was the most meaningful encounter of the trip, but that could be my retrospective take on events. For the remaining weeks I wandered around the city, visited Arles, Avignon, Nimes and also went a couple of times to the coast: the only occasion I used my tent. Mainly though I went to galleries and sat in cafes. When I ran out of the books I had taken with me, I bought some more from an English language bookshop in the city.
I returned to Edinburgh and in keeping with my need for consistency, or for exacerbating my laidback inertia, I applied for a job in a hostel in the city, the hostel I'd been staying in for a few days since I returned. My family lived in the highlands, and for various reasons I didn't want to visit them.
I was told at the interview I could start that weekend. This would have been near the end of August, as the festival that turned a sleepy student city into a place of constant event was beginning to conclude. I recalled an evening when Fabrice and I had gone out in St Tropez. It was late June, and so not the peak period for this fishing village, but still there were thousands of people eating expensive meals wearing expensive clothes, adorned with expensive jewellery, possessed of tans that looked like they would never fade. In Avignon I arrived near the end of the famous theatre festival. Again I had the sense if not of the wealth so conspicuous in St Tropez then at least the sense of watching winners, of observing people who were exactly where they thought they ought to be - maybe both geographically and professionally. When I went I of course felt neither. Perhaps a definition of that horrible term I couldn't quite escape - a loser.
Back in Edinburgh, though, I quickly settled into the job, found a studio flat very cheaply, and managed to top up my three nights a week as a porter with cash in hand work as an English tutor. I was happy, and believed that for the moment at least I was exactly where I wanted to be. Getting tutoring work was quite easy - the hostel allowed me to put up an advert on the notice board - and since the classes were mainly conversational, it wasn't too different from sitting in the hostel talking to one of the guests.
Yet Derek Conrad seemed to want to talk more than most. Many of the hostel visitors would sit down and find themselves drawn into the conversation we were having, but when they did so they didn't expect still to be talking an hour later, evident in them often saying that they only intended to sit down for a couple of minutes before going up to the dorms. Derek though came in from the pub, saw me sitting on the couch by the bay window, and sat down. As I've said, he asked me what I was reading and we got into a conversation about philosophy. I found myself defending a stance that I've rarely felt the need to hold so vociferously, yet one I think probably permeates this story: the idea that life needs to be about more than winners and losers, that our meaning shouldn't come from besting others, but from attentiveness, seeing maybe the weakness in other people and wanting to help rather than defeat them. I mentioned other philosophers who seemed to share this view, and he named others he thought utterly contradicted it. I recall the main argument was over Nietzsche - whether he was finally a philosopher of power or compassion.
We didn't argue during the two hours that we talked, but I did sense that his belief was as fundamentally held as my own; that one reason why we didn't argue rested in our positions being so strong that the sort of ego battles central to many arguments would have been irrelevant to ours. When he went to bed I felt he could almost have died defending his opinion; I never thought he may have actively been killing by it.
The morning after reading about Conrad in the paper I asked the receptionist when he arrived at eight whether he had known Conrad had been staying in the hostel. He said he knew that he had been there a few months earlier, and explained why he was banned. He stayed only for several nights, but it was only on the third evening, the last of his stay, that he acted in a manner that meant the hostel had no choice but to ban him, even if they didn't have enough proof to call in the police. That evening Conrad went out with a group of tourists, and apparently spiked their drinks. When they got back to the dorm, they fell into a deep sleep, and the next morning two of them woke with a piece of the sheet cut out in a neat square around their nether regions. It seemed that Conrad fellated them, though they had no memory of the incident at all. Thereafter a picture of Conrad with his name attached was behind the counter saying that we should not under any circumstances allow this man to stay. In the picture he had longish, receding hair and stubble. When he stayed in the hostel under an assumed name his hair was very short and his face clean-shaven.
A couple of weeks after reading about the story in the paper, I was sitting behind the counter shortly after I started my shift, and the young woman whose room I had taken in Montpellier came up to me. Sylvie looked at me as if she recognized my face, and then said, of course, I remember you. I said I was pleased that she had come to Scotland; that I hoped the city was the size she required for her project. She said that actually it was the end of her stay: that she had changed the focus of her project and incorporated into it as much of Scotland as she could.
Later that evening I was sitting on the very couch that I had been seated on that evening when I talked to Conrad, when Sylvie came in and asked if I wanted company. I said I wouldn't mind, and I asked her if she happened to be a serial killer, before I explained that the last person who sat down and really needed to talk was someone who had been arrested for a series of murders. She asked me what he looked like, and after I had finished describing him she told me that shortly after arriving in Edinburgh, early in September, the strangest thing had happened to her. One evening she was out with a few people from the hostel, and amongst them was the very man I had described. They got into an interesting discussion, about philosophy, and the others went back to the hostel but she stayed. At a certain moment she didn't remember very much, except waking up the next morning in a hotel room on the other side of town. She had obviously been drugged, and yet nothing, she was sure, had happened to her. She should of course have reported it to the police, but didn't do so. She wanted to concentrate on the project, and worried that getting involved with the police would have meant staying in Edinburgh longer than she would have wished : she was keen to get up to the Highlands. That afternoon she booked out of the hostel and went up north. I said it was a little odd that she had booked in here again, and she said everywhere else was full. It was true the only reason we had any space that Saturday night was because a large group had cancelled on the Friday afternoon saying they couldn't make it.
I asked her to tell me when she had been staying in the hostel. I went over to the computer and worked out that indeed the night that she was in a hotel room was the evening that Conrad and I had talked. Did he intend to come back to the hostel and talk to me to create an alibi for what he would later do to Sylvie on the other side of town, did he merely want to show his power, that he could completely transpose a person from one place to another without their noticing? Did the conversation over power and fragility affect his decision?
I went behind the counter again and found the newspaper where I had first read that Conrad had been arrested. As I looked at it again while Sylvie went off to the bathroom, I also glanced at the short piece concerning the foreign legion. It seemed that a number of legionnaires from Toulon had died in a helicopter accident - there was a Frenchman, a Pole and a Romanian who were killed in the crash. There were no pictures, but I did of course wonder whether this was the same teenager whom I had walked several miles with that day in the summer. Sylvie returned from the bathroom and noticed that I looked moved. I said that life makes too little sense or too much. I didn't know which. She said that she was tired and was going to bed. I smiled and said that I hoped this time that she woke up in the bed that she expected to find herself in. The next evening when I started my shift she was gone, having booked out of the hostel a day earlier than she intended.
© Tony McKibbin