I was sitting alone in a famous cafe not far from Montparnasse cemetery, the Closerie des Lilas, when I looked across at a man who was either someone I vaguely knew, or who happened to be so distinctive in his gestures and habits that he managed to mark himself on my mind with the one encounter but as if with the familiarity of half-a-dozen. In this now expensive cafe in Paris that many years earlier was a popular place for writers including Paul Eluard, Gide and Hemingway to imbibe in, he was eating steak with chips and a side salad, drinking a small bottle of sparkling water, and a half bottle of red wine. After the meal he smoked a cigar, all the while looking as though company would have interrupted his dinner more than it would have complemented it.
Over the previous fifteen years I had travelled alone a lot, writing travel journalism and one or two guides, even a semi-serious literary effort after a trip around Latin America, but I had never got used to eating without others, even if every other aspect of the travel itinerary I enjoyed. Here was a man, though, who seemed happily solitary during the one moment of the day when I would have felt mildly wretched. As I sat drinking a coffee and reading a book, I was looking forward to eating with friends who lived around the corner from the cemetery, maybe enjoying my own company all the more knowing that I would shortly be sharing it with others.
I had been staying in a friend's place on the other side of the Seine while he was away, and it was one of the few occasions in the last few years when I was travelling without any purpose, and perhaps what I also found fascinating about this man who looked in his late fifties was that he seemed to be someone who never appeared like he had a reason to do anything, but didn't seem bored, frustrated or impatient either. What also interested me was that he seemed to have absorbed what I can only call a void, a vague term that maybe this story will help clarify.
Perhaps my own life has been an attempt to circumvent it without using what I've always seen as the social accoutrements which can quell this feeling of potential pointlessness: the career job, the wife, the children and the mortgage. I don't offer these up snidely; I have friends who have chosen this life and live it well. Their days are filled with work, DIY, cooking and cleaning; they have friends round for dinner and the occasional pint down the pub to escape from the wife and kids and into the folds of friendship where hobbies can be discussed, arguments pursued and yearnings occasionally alluded to by the pub's fire. Perhaps the clustering of the last sentence contains the pejorative, but it is there more to suggest the convention: I have some half a dozen friends who live very similarly to the description I've offered. I've perhaps escaped that life, but have I lived the alternative as well as the man who was sitting across from me?
If someone had said that afternoon the man I observed was someone I had met twenty years earlier when I was fifteen I would have laughed, amused by its impossibility, but as I would discover through thought more than circumstance I had indeed met him, and more than half a dozen times. That evening I went round to the friends' place for dinner, and as we talked initially about how I felt wandering about Paris without any clear point or purpose, as Florence and Jacques asked whether I would write about my Paris trip even if there was no commission, so I mentioned that I had seen an interesting man in a cafe earlier that day. I described him to them and they said they perhaps knew who it was, or rather at least thought it might be the same man whom they had discussed amongst themselves. Like me, they had seen him in a cafe, though on several different occasions and in several different places, and they wondered who the person might be. He must have been reasonably wealthy if he could eat in restaurants like the one I saw him in earlier, and where they also first saw him, and yet he didn't look like a person in business, nor in the media, and they wondered where he might have made his money.
They asked the question idly as if hardly expecting an answer, when a few weeks later they saw him for a second time sitting in Cafe de Flore, not far from Montparnasse, on his own and eating a full meal. This time they were passing the cafe on their way to a cinema off Boulevard St Germain, and Florence saw him first and looked at Jacques, asking if he recognized the man sitting on the terrace eating. Jacques nodded - he remembered him from the Closerie des Lilas. Over the next few months they would see him usually around seven at night eating at various elegant and expensive cafes in Paris, often famous in the past for their literary and artistic clients, but now more often popular with tourists: Cafe de Flore, Deux Magot, La Coupole and a few others, often on Boulevard St Germain, or around Montparnasse. I asked them if they knew what he did, and they said they still couldn't say: they must have seen him about six times, but always in the same context, and some other friends, when Jacques and Florence described him, said they had seen him too. Jacques and Florence never passed him on the street, though, and never once saw him at night in a bar or using public transport during the day. They referred to him as the restaurant man, and would occasionally hypothesize a life for him. He was the final member of an aristocratic family and deliberately hadn't had kids as a gesture of political defiance, determined to end the family blood line, and, determined to use up the last of the family wealth, each night would eat out in an expensive restaurant. Another was that he was a well-known writer who used a pseudonym and allowed no pictures to appear in the public domain, and that he followed in the tradition of Gide, Eluard, Sartre and others, but paradoxically so: instead of eating at cafes that were affordable and fashionable years before, he would eat in them now they were more bourgeois and expensive, determined to capture a toxic class of which he happened to be a member: how else could he have afforded to eat there so often? A third was that he happened to be a food critic, yet that wouldn't quite explain why he would go to the same place on several occasions.
The following afternoon I met up with a friend who told me that she had a funeral in a couple of days' time, actually in Montparnasse cemetery. Jacqueline worked occasionally as a volunteer in a second-hand bookshop in Paris and, for the five years she had been employed there, a man of around forty five working as a book scout would come in and offer some books. It was a casual job done by many, with people going to the various flea markets around Paris and sometimes buying the books very cheaply, sometimes picking up books left by sellers at the markets who didn't think they were worth taking home. They would also look through boxes of books left by the bigger bookshops that were remaindering stock, with the scouts picking up the books before the bin vans would take them away. Jamie was a very good scout, and though he wasn't someone who would read very much, he knew which authors would be of interest to second-hand shops in the city, and, of all the scouts who would come into the shop, Jacqueline would groan least when she saw it was Jamie.
He had arrived from the States fifteen years earlier, and had lived for most of that time in a miniscule, almost microscopic flat around the corner from the well-known Shakespeare and Co bookstore, and next to a park he could often be found drawing in. Jamie had come to Paris to paint, but budgetary limitations meant that his finances usually only stretched far enough for him to be able to afford paper and pencil. He would often draw pictures of famous writers on hard card and the second-hand English language bookshops in Paris would sell them cheaply; then put the money into a collection box that, with the book scout work, allowed Jamie to survive. His rent was very low since his room was a fourteen metre square top floor apartment that before he moved in was used for junk. It had a sink, a bed, a desk, a chair, a kettle and a wardrobe and a skylight, and he used a toilet that was out in the landing on the floor below. He would wash in the sink and only showered when he occasionally went to the swimming pool, or when visiting a friend. But he never smelt, and seemed to live more than most on the air he breathed and the simplest of diets: he liked cereals, bread, fruit and cheese. He would eat fish, drink wine, even meat occasionally, but he wouldn't seek them out, and would eat them if a friend was cooking. Since he had no cooker in his own place, he would eat food that didn't need to be prepared, and even when he did have people for dinner it would consist of cheese, bread, grapes and wine in the park across the way. He never drank coffee and often drank tea, though rarely in cafes, and usually would be seen with a flask that he would sip at whilst working in the park.
As Jacqueline told me about his life I wondered about his death: how did he die, since he seemed so healthy? She said it was a heart attack; that there were many instances of heart disease in his family, and one reason he moved to France was to escape the stressful life he believed his family lived in the States. When he initially left home at around eighteen, his family would tell him he had to start making money at painting or give it up and get a job that would pay a living wage, a job that could allow him to get married and support a family. He had received help from them while he was still living in the US, but, when he left he refused all largesse and minimized contact: he would send once a year a Christmas card saying that he was well. The family had of course been told of his death, and several members would be coming over for the funeral.
I asked Jacqueline how she knew so much about him, especially the troubles he had with his family. She said Jamie was a man without secrets, and liked talking, so any time you would ask him a question he would answer in immense detail, whether it was about his family or about books he had bought, or a drawing he was working on. Did he travel much? He took a trip to Scotland and Ireland once she said. Did he have any affairs? Not as far as she knew, and this might have been a decision he made after leaving the US, because he did not seem like a man who was shy of women, nor like a man who hadn't had sexual encounters in the past. It was more as if he wanted to live in a certain type of way after leaving America, and this could not include sexual encounters. Yet he never talked about it, I wondered. She never asked, she replied, perhaps curious why I was asking. Maybe she turned slightly curt because I knew a boyfriend from her past had left to pursue his interest in rock climbing, and she couldn't quite countenance someone choosing an activity over a person. She got engaged a couple of years afterwards, but she couldn't commit to a man she liked but didn't love when she still loved a man she couldn't be with, and I would sometimes see a disappointed expression on her face and wonder whether she would look online and see what her rock climbing ex was now doing.
Jacqueline asked if I would like to go the funeral, and even though I had never met Jamie I wanted to pay homage to a certain type of life by commemorating his death, so went along on an indecisive late July morning when the sun shone for five minutes before the clouds came in and the sun would then poke out from the clouds. It reflected the mood of the funeral, I thought, with Jamie's friends sad but triumphal; believing that though Jamie had died young he had lived well. His mother, his father his brother and his sister, looked like a cloud about to burst, heavy and dark, but I couldn't quite work out whether they were unhappy with their own lives or irritated by Jamie's. There was a meal afterwards at the restaurant on the ground floor of the building that housed Jamie's flat, and I was seated next to Jamie's father who asked how I happened to know his son.
I admitted I had never met him, and when he looked surprised I added that I wanted to respect a certain way of life. I knew this wasn't what he wanted to hear, but the desire to tell the truth, the inability to make up an excuse and the need perhaps to be a little mischievous, meant it had to be said, and in turn he had to say that I was no doubt one of the types that led his son to an early grave. It was an odd scenario. There I was defending a man I had never met, and the father insisting I was responsible for his son's demise. He was a wide man of modest height, with eyebrows that needed to be trimmed back and added to a menacing demeanour that I suspected the son had been the victim of years earlier, even if the eyebrows then had probably been less wild. My tone in observing him was more amused than fearful, but I wondered how Jamie must have felt as a young man trying to work his way out from under this heavy, affluent influence. As Jacqueline had told me, Jamie's father was a wealthy man, someone who made his money all by himself and couldn't quite understand a son who perhaps also wanted to be self-made, but in a different direction.
Later that afternoon when a few of us went on to a cafe near the restaurant, I asked Jacqueline whether it might have been the stress of his parents' subtle demands that killed him: did he seem to have internalised their expectations and judgements? Who knows, she replied, but, after saying that she had heard the exchange between us, what she didn't doubt was that the father should have taken a bit more of the blame than he expected me to take. It is interesting that parents give us life but also can kill us, I offered: maybe it is the genetic heritage they provide, or the demands they place upon us, and I mentioned a Philip Larkin poem that was famous for the idea that mums and dads fuck us up, with the line "they fill you up with the Faults they had/And add some extra, just for you." She asked me if I happened to be thinking of my own father, and I replied, perhaps.
Was it Jamie's funeral and the notion of a father making a mess of a son's life that made me remember where I knew the man in the cafe from? It required however another sighting for the memory to come back to me, and a sighting based not especially on looking for him, but putting to the test a comment Florence and Jacques made where they assumed people were still reading in these great literary cafes; that they weren't only for the tourists and the rich. I arrived in the late afternoon and sat for a couple of hours in the Cafe de Flore, ordering one and then another not inexpensive coffee, and during those two hours I saw only three people reading. Two men were glancing through a newspaper and a child was reading a comic. After about an hour and a half, though, I noticed the enigmatically elegant stranger arrive and watched him as he ordered a full meal, with wine. What I hadn't noticed before was how carefully he would seem to look at things. He wouldn't stare at anyone, but as they got up to leave, he would watch the person as they left the cafe, or would look at the back of someone's head for what appeared to be minutes. He was like a sketch artist, but without the pad, and it was at that moment it occurred to me where I would have known him from, and how it connected to the notion of making a mess of someone's life. The man was my art teacher from twenty years before.
Mr Anders hadn't aged badly in the intervening years, but his look was quite different. He used to have short, dark, greying hair; now it was long and more white than grey. He never used to wear glasses; now he did. He used to have a broader build based on outdoor pursuits, now he had the thin physique of the aesthetic city dweller. Anders was from Germany, and he had come to teach in Dingwall Academy and live in Strathpeffer, about six miles from the school, and not far from where my family lived. He had taught for a while at the Glasgow School of Art, but wanted to live more rurally, and took a job in the Highlands, teaching art while his wife taught German. I remember he was only at the school for a year, when I was sixteen: I took my O Grade in art with him. I thought he was the best teacher in the school, though friends who took German said his wife was very interesting too, as she taught German as a much more living language than the previous teacher, who could have been teaching Latin or Ancient Greek. His wife would teach it with a feel for the contemporary, and often mentioned Hitler, the Red Army Faction and the fall of the Berlin wall, which had fallen only a couple of years earlier, and at the time I sometimes wished I had chosen German over French.
They were an exotic couple at the school, and no less so in the village. She was a few years younger than he was, and she was as interested in outdoor pursuits as Mr Anders. She also had I remember a long, snaking tattoo that curled its way from her shoulder down to her wrist, as though indicating someone happier in the city than the country. It was kept covered while she taught, but I saw it once in the village when the sun was out, and she was wearing a vest. She smiled at my startled look: I didn't know anyone else who had a tattoo except active and retired service men. But obviously what led the Anders' to leave the town a year after they arrived wasn't any shock that I expressed, but a broader one encapsulated in my father's anger at a show Mr Anders put on at the gallery in the Strathpeffer Pavillion around May, nine months after they had arrived. Some of the paintings were landscape images, best described as Turneresque in their capacity to invoke the turbulence of nature, with the paintings offering nature as dynamically sublime. Others were of houses, with Anders especially interested in capturing the stone built firmness of the buildings in our Victorian spa town. Some of the paintings shared affinities with Hopper and, alongside Turner and Bacon, he said Hopper was his favourite painter, though he admired in the American artist the immense stillness and in the British artists' their capacity for movement. There were also about fifteen paintings of people doing ordinary everyday tasks like sitting at the bar, doing their shopping, or talking to a friend in the high street. Not initself a problem, but they happened to be naked, and also happened to be based on people living in Strathpeffer and Dingwall. They had elements of Bacon's work, but were probably closer to Lucien Freud's. Of course Anders wouldn't have seen the locals nude, but he imagined what those bodies would have looked like unclothed, and most of them were unflatteringly presented, though not at all caricaturally so. He guessed the bodies they might have had based on the way they moved, the clothes they wore. I found the work interesting and provocative, saw in it an aspect of Highland life that I couldn't have articulated but that Anders' work captured. Back then, though, my father's response was unequivocally negative, and as assistant headmaster at Dingwall Academy he campaigned against Anders' exhibition, and by implication his very teaching at the school. Anders didn't return the following year, and nor did his wife.
My memory of Anders, however, was not that of the arrogant and aloof figure my father presented for months after he left, and occasionally offered even before the troublesome gallery exhibits, but of someone who was curious about the lives of others, with even the houses he painted and the landscapes he offered trying to capture whatever we might mean by aspects of Highland life. He was the only teacher (whether in English, art or music) I ever had who managed to suggest that the pupils were part of great art, even if whatever we painted or drew wasn't going to be seen or admired by anyone else. It's of course about the craft, he would say, but also about perception: even if we failed to put on the canvas what we saw, we at least in the failure could see what we were trying to do, and could see better what others had managed to achieve. We didn't admire artists from a great distance, he said, but from close-up, seeing that our problems with aesthetic creation weren't that different from theirs.
After getting back home from the cafe that evening I went online and saw that Anders had become very well-known, with exhibitions in numerous countries, and articles on his work in a number of leading arts magazines. His place of residence was generally listed as Berlin, and so I guessed he was in Paris preparing for an exhibition, though I could find no mention of it anywhere. It seemed that he had split up with his wife around ten years earlier.
A couple of days later I was having dinner with Jacqueline, Florence and Jacques, when I told Florence and Jacques that had I worked out who the man eating in the cafe happened to be. At first they thought I was making it up (Jacqueline simply wondered who I was talking about) and it was only after some explanation that they believed me. Later that evening, walking from Florence and Jacques' apartment with Jacqueline, who lived on the Right Bank not far from my place, I said that maybe Anders had a stronger impact on my life than I realized, and I wondered if Jamie had ever at a certain age possessed a figure in his who countered the force of his father's perspective. It's all very well travelling to the other side of the world to escape a parent's beliefs, but what happens if that person is so embedded in your nervous system that no amount of geographical distance can make much of a difference? I told her then a bit more about my father, a biology teacher who worked his way up to headmaster, and who believed that the arts were a waste of time, that even English shouldn't be about literary appreciation but about putting the right words in the right order so that we can make sense of what we think and allow others to make sense of what we say. Jacqueline knew my father died when I was twenty one (and not long after he had become headmaster) and knew also in conversations that we would have about our parents that I could not regret his passing. I then added something that I think shocked her: better the son puts the father into the grave, I said, than the father puts the son into one. We were passing near Jamie's old flat, and so I suggested paying homage by climbing over the gate and into the park: I'd taken two bottles of wine to Jacques and Florence's place and they insisted I take one of them back. Jacqueline added, as we clambered over the railings, that I should also try and justify the statement I had just made.
In the park I took the multi-purpose penknife from my pocket, found the corkscrew on it in the dark, and opened the bottle of wine. We passed it back and forth between us for the next hour as we talked about parents, ours and others, and finished off the bottle. What did I mean by my statement? I wasn't quite sure, I admitted, but knew that my father's death allowed me to live my own existence and wondered no matter the singularity of Jamie's life whether he had quite felt that he could live his. She told me that sometimes Jamie would feel his life was a waste of time, even though he believed it to be meaningful and that he had created it for himself. Yet occasionally this melancholy would overtake him, and he said once that maybe it was his father's judgement working more deeply inside him than his own will.
I knew from previous conversations with Jacqueline that her parents' expectations and demands left her often ragged with confusion. She worked as a schoolteacher and literary translator, as well as volunteering in the shop, translating mainly Scottish and Irish writers into French. I had met her through Jacques and Florence and the friend whose place I was staying in. At that time Jacqueline was engaged to a trainee lawyer, the man she couldn't quite love, but a couple of years ago broke off the engagement after she couldn't commit to the marriage. The reproaches she received from her parents were much greater than those she received from her former fiance, whom she still saw occasionally and who was now engaged to another woman. Her parents thought it was bad enough that she settled for a mediocre job in a school whilst adapting novelists who were probably rightly obscure, but her only chance of a decent life she had thrown away, though they had of course forgotten the one man Jacqueline couldn't: the one who had chosen his vocation over her. Jacqueline would talk about her parents without much subtlety, as if to try and protect herself from the power of their judgements by reducing them to the comic dimension of their statements. They are good people, she would often say by way of ending the conversation, however inconclusively.
As we drank and talked she said she could never wish her parents dead. I told her that wasn't what I meant. It was more that the children have to protect their own lives, protect themselves from their parents' influence. I didn't at all wish my father were dead, but I accepted that his death nevertheless helped free up my life. I wondered aloud to her whether Anders' presence had too helped me to live my own life. It was as if my father's attitude to Anders allowed my own to crystallize, to know that whatever my genetic heritage it didn't stretch to general principles. I didn't want to exaggerate Anders' importance; he was a brief role model; nothing like a father-figure. But he helped demolish the image of my father, diminished him enough to make me see that he could not be a person I could rely upon to make sense of my future.
After finishing the bottle of wine, we were now quite drunk, and would later conclude the evening in a bar in Le Marais, where we would treat each other to cocktails, and where I would make a pass that was not for the first time sensibly rejected. As we clambered over the park gate Jacqueline laughed and wondered what our parents would think of us now. Or Jamie's, I added, looking up at the former apartment of this late stranger.
It would have been several months afterwards when I was back in Britain and I saw, in the Guardian Saturday Guide, a short piece announcing an exhibition at a London gallery by Josef Anders. It was running for a couple of months and I emailed Jacqueline, Jacques and Florence, asking if they would be in London during this period. Jacqueline said that she could probably make it: she needed to meet up with an Irish writer living in London, and would make it coincide. She also said that she had a couple of hundred of Jamie's drawings, and would take some of them over if I wished to look at them: they weren't the drawings of famous people from the shop, but of people whom he would see around the city and elsewhere. I'd said to her I might be able to do something with them.
Anders' exhibition consisted of around fifty pictures contextualized by a quote from Elias Canetti, with the writer saying, "modern man likes eating at separate tables, with his own little group, for which he pays. Since everyone else in the place is doing the same thing, he eats his meal under the pleasing illusion that everyone everywhere has enough to eat." The paintings were obviously based on his observations eating alone in Paris, and maybe other cities too. As we passed one painting, Jacqueline turned and looked at me and laughed: was that not me, eating alone with short cropped hair and a T-shirt, the arms indicative of the kayaking I would do in my youth and the press-ups I did in the present? At first it reminded me more of Jacqueline's ex, and some of the pictures she had shown me of him rock-climbing, with biceps and forearms knotted in strenuous subtlety as they negotiated nooks and crannies on the world's rock faces. But then I realized it was almost certainly based on a younger Anders, Anders as he would have looked when he was teaching in the Highlands twenty years earlier, and how I happened to look now as if I had unconsciously modelled myself after him. I offered the latter observation about Anders to Jacqueline, but kept the former perception about her ex-boyfriend to myself.
In all the other paintings people were eating in company, and at the end of the exhibition there was another quote from the same section of Canetti's 'On the Psychology of Eating'. "Anyone who eats alone renounces the prestige which the process would bring him in the eyes of others. He bares his teeth simply for the sake of eating, and this impresses no-one, for there is no one there to be impressed."
A few weeks later I took a trip up north and had with me some of the drawings Jacqueline had taken over to Britain with her. All of them were sketches Jamie had done while touring Scotland and Ireland, a mixture of landscapes and people. I showed them to my mother in the kitchen of the formerly cramped cottage that she owned in the hamlet of Jamestown. She had bought it after my father died, and a few years after that built a large extension on to it that was so integrated into the facade that few people recognized it as an extension at all. I didn't know initially why she did it - I was her only child and I had shown no interest in marriage and children - but over the years she had turned the house into all that my father would have despised. A former English teacher who stopped teaching after I was born and who for years would take on only the occasional private student, she now taught regularly, and often to small groups of pupils from Dingwall Academy, hosted a fortnightly reading group, and was involved in various galleries in the Highlands, including one in Beauly and the exhibition space in Strathpeffer.
On my first morning there we looked through the drawings and afterwards went for a walk nearby, round by Kinnellan loch. The sheep scattered as we came towards them, and my mother said we were probably a bit like that with my father. Maybe he wasn't so bad she said; maybe we were just too scared. She then talked to me for the first time about his death, and how she saw in those last weeks as life left him a man vulnerable not only in his body but also in his mind. He couldn't quite understand why he was dying when others far less worthy of life were still alive. He was of course as I well knew not a religious man, but he saw himself as a logical one, and this was an injustice he took personally, even if he didn't know who he was supposed to rail against. He believed in justice and fairness, my mother said, and we shouldn't condemn him for that.
I recalled his face the day before he died, and though he could hardly speak his eyes seemed to be asking why. It was the first time I had ever seen such an expression on his face, and I wished it had been present more often when he was a fit and well man, when he was capable of asking questions about the world instead of assuming that he knew the answers.
As we arrived back at the house and saw Jamie's drawings scattered across the expansive kitchen table, my mother said that she would try and arrange for the work to be shown in the area. Weren't many of the drawings done in the Highlands anyway? I proposed the work should be shown in Strathpeffer, in the very gallery where Mr Anders's work was once displayed. She looked at me quizzically as she tried to recall who Mr Anders happened to be, and so as we ate lunch together I told her the story of my recent trip to Paris, and of a man sitting in a restaurant eating dinner alone, and whom she then recalled as I described him. As I finished, I realized that of all the trips I had taken, it was this trip with no point or purpose that clearly moved her the most, as if maybe Anders, or perhaps his wife, had influenced her too.
© Tony McKibbin